Pandora’s Box

The title of this post is a little clichéd for my liking but it’s right. A blogger based in Ireland called Sabrina Dent has called us all out in relation to conferencing and the dirth of women speaking at them. She pointed out that the particular conference that got her thinking about this had a particularly bad track record in relation to gender balance regardless of the location of their event.* In other words that although the pool might be limited in Ireland the same can not be said of the British and North American locations of other events that have been organised by this group.

Her commenters responded posing questions and opinions about whether it was not just representative of the actual gender balance in IT, whether it would not be worse just to ask women to speak just because they are women, whether it’s the fault of the conference organisers or is society/ the education system/ wussy women/ childcare/ macho macho men to blame? (I added the last three myself because I’m a helpful person.)

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot since Sabrina posed it. *Not least because she pointed out to me (very nicely in a private message) that she thought that my place of work, the Irish Internet Association, didn’t have a good track record in this area either. My only defence on behalf of the IIA is that we have a strong line-up of women on the staff and board and amongst our speakers but we generally try to get the most expert person in the field and not think about gender at all. Also when you are listing presenters at an event you don’t generally list those who turned you down for obvious reasons! Anyway I don’t want to blog about work here!

So I thought about this question from a personal point of view. I’ve only ever been asked to speak at one event on a topic remotely related to this sector. I presumed that this was because I worked for the IIA and it never crossed my mind for a single moment that they might be trying to gender balance their event. Maybe they were. Had I found out by some crazy mishap that this had been the case how would I have felt about it? Would I be as enraged if I found out that they hadn’t considered me because I am a woman? Is it very different to just being asked because I was the only IIA staff member available? If they had asked for my boss would I have said “Ahem excuse me have you considered the gender balance of your panel? Do you not think you should ask one of the women involved with the IIA to speak?” No I would not because I would presume they were asking him because of his specific expertise.

I think those who say it’s hard to gender balance speaker panels in the IT sector have a point to a certain extent. However I have not always worked in the IT sector and sadly it seems to be a similar breakdown in the other sectors I worked in, Irish Language and more generally, the charity and voluntary sector both of which are top heavy with male staff and bottom heavy with female staff based on my eyeballing them at conferences.

I also think those who say would you prefer that a woman was asked just because she’s a woman are being fallacious. You’d lose your event organising job pretty damn quick if you operated on those lines. However sites like GeekSpeakr will give event organisers a chance to find women who are willing to speak in the IT sector worldwide. I haven’t signed up to it myself because I wouldn’t consider myself an expert and because Hugh McLeod of Gaping Void is totally putting me off!

I remember when I was in school one of my best friends was really into debating. She went on to college and did well for one of the college debating societies in at least two languages. She is one of the few women I know well who speaks at high end specialist conferences regularly. I remember back in the day when we were in secondary school she would complain about the shrinking violets who wouldn’t get involved in debating but equally we found it difficult to compete in debates. I wonder whether our experience then and the grandstanding approach to competition doesn’t continue into adulthood. Maybe debating didn’t suit us and maybe the traditional conference with speaker as *ahem* rock star doesn’t suit women.

I actually met Sabrina Dent for the first time at my first unconference, PodCampIreland, (it’s been a year of firsts!) where both of us had volunteered to speak: she in her inimitable style about pimping your website; me about Twitter. In fact many of the presenters who spoke were women. The underlying approach at an unconference or camp like this is the participative nature; the emphasis on starting conversation. Maybe I’m going to finish on a stereotype but I wonder does this approach suit women’s style of information sharing. Is it fair to say that women share information through conversation and possibly prefer this mode?

And that’s exactly the kind of generalisation I hate! So maybe it is down to education so I will continue to play my part here at home and continue to ask my boys “Why is it a girl’s toy? Because it’s pink? Pink’s a girl’s colour? What makes it a girl’s colour? A colour isn’t a boy or girl etc.” They’re only little – I’ll develop on the theme as they get older.

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