Too Few Women in Tech? There’s more than you think.

This was originally posted to my personal blog

This post entitled Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men was making the rounds when I got back from camping yesterday. It’s a “just do it” rallying cry, which is not unreasonable (more women trying will likely result in more succeeding) but one that’s made a bit blindly, unaware of some of the barriers that those who try are facing.

There’s already an excellent response out there which says most of what I wanted to say: Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Playing the Blame Game. Basically, quit trying to blame it all on men or women or society or math test scores and try working together to create solutions. All of these things (and more) are to blame, but pointing it out isn’t nearly as helpful as finding work-arounds.

But there’s still one thing I’d like to pull out of the original article:

We beg women to come and speak. (…) And you know what? A lot of the time they say no. Because they are literally hounded to speak at every single tech event in the world because they are all trying so hard to find qualified women to speak at their conference.

Let me tell you a story. One year, it was announced that one student in my department was going to get a special job. Over the months afterwards, I heard a lot of grumbling. The problem was not that said student couldn’t do the job: the person was an excellent candidate. The problem was that the student had been the only candidate. The university had quite a number of other talented students, and they had not been made aware of the upcoming position or given a chance to apply. The person who got the job was the same person regularly nominated for special scholarships, invited to special events, seemingly given first right of refusal in many other projects. The upper academia equivalent of a teacher’s pet.

The problem was that the university saw themselves as having a single exceptional candidate, when in fact they had probably 10, 30, or more.

I think this is what’s starting to happen when it comes to women in tech. Sure, there might not be enough of us. Sure, it’s no where near the 50% of the population. But that doesn’t mean you get to ask the 5 women you know or have seen speak before and then sigh and say “it’s too bad no women want to participate.” Like the university, you’re probably missing at least 10 times as many who are qualified, but haven’t been quite so heaped with honours so they’re harder to find.

If all the women you’re asking are all busy, it’s not necessarily a sign that all possible excellent candidates are busy; it could just be a sign that you’re looking in the same place as everyone else.

Because I interact with a lot of other techcnical women, I know there are many good people who just don’t hear about speaking opportunities. And others have so many requests they can’t handle them all.

So in the spirit of being useful, here’s some wider places you should look if you’re trying to find some great women speakers. Maybe not all of them have given keynotes and been interviewed a dozen times, but they’re still interesting people who could enhance your event:

  • The Grace Hopper 2010 schedule includes a many women speakers on a number of topics. (I’m on the open source track!) I found the calibre of speakers at GHC 09 to be especially high, so it’s a great place to start when looking for a great speaker. Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of candidates? Talk to @ghc and ask for help making the right connections.
  • is intended to help events find technical women speakers and vice versa. You can search by keywords or just browse around. These folk have all signed up saying they’re willing to speak!
  • My university Women in Science and Engineering group ran the Carleton Celebration of Women in Science and Engineering last spring, and I was especially impressed with the the technical speakers during the day (i.e. before 5pm) because they were presenting graduate level research and ideas in ways that were accessible and fascinating. These women are definitely a cut above when it comes to science communicators!
  • There are many women’s groups around you can ask. I’m a member of Systers (originally for women in SYStems, now a more general women in technology group) and Linuxchix (a group for women and allies interested in Linux or other open source). But there’s lots more such groups.

And that’s only scratching the surface of places I’d look if I wanted to find good female speakers. Need some more help? Just ask!

18 thoughts on “Too Few Women in Tech? There’s more than you think.

  1. ptp

    I have seen a lot of rumblings around the need for more female speakers at events as if that serves as some sort of bellwether for female inclusion. I understand it, to a degree, but I think the topic is sometimes a convenient surrogate and a potential distraction.

    Anyway, to get to the point – I’m in a position where I might be responsible for hiring in 6-12 months and I’d really like to make sure that I look at more than just the 2 or 3 women I know who might be interested. Where can I find good resources on female *job* (as opposed to speaker) candidates? I know there are all of the normal resources like LinkedIn, but I want to be able to actively seek out potential candidates according to criteria *I* decide rather than open up a job and have to filter through hundreds of apps to find half a dozen female candidates.

    1. Terri

      mdz actually did a GF post on this very subject, and you might find a few other links on the geek feminism wiki. Of particular note are the many excellent studies linked by the Anita Borg Institute.

      Also, many of those places I mentioned above for finding speakers are also good ways to find job candidates. Grace Hopper actually has a large database of resumes, plus linkedin and is running a career fair this year — you may want to consider getting your company to participate next year (and having a booth at GHC can net you a lot of goodwill as well as resumes from attendees! It doesn’t have to just be booths: my scholarship to GHC10 is being sponsored by Symantec.)

      Systers and Linuxchix both allow and even encourage job postings. Women in Science and Engineering groups (like my own CU-WISE) often allow small job advertisements to be included with their newsletters to their members, who may be drawn from a university or a city or even a broader area. Ask around to find out if there are girl geek dinners in your area: I know I met a few would-be job seekers at the last one I attended. (Men aren’t always welcome, but you can ask — they might also have a mailing list or be willing to let you send along a brief pitch in exchange for sponsorship or a raffle giveaway)

      1. Restructure!

        Is the Grace Hopper resume database only for people who intend to work within the U.S.? It looks that way, but since you’re Canadian, maybe I’m missing something.

        1. Terri

          It’s not meant to be — many of the companies participating are multinationals, and I found many who had offices in Canada and elsewhere. However, it’s not unbiased: there are definitely companies there looking only for people willing to work in the US.

  2. nobody

    First, terri, I love you for writing that. You excellently summed up what I see as the primary issue.

    Second, ptp, I don’t know how to say this nicely, but I will try. I can’t think of anything worse for diversity than keeping jobs a secret. Keeping jobs a secret to save yourself the hassle of looking at qualified candidates is a recipe for only hiring people who are already well connected and in the loop: your candidates will be overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly from an upper middle class or higher background. Us chicks from blue collar backgrounds with no connections and no mentoring are guaranteed to be out of the loop, no matter how brilliant and qualified we are. So much for meritocracy.

    1. ptp

      I think you misunderstand. I haven’t and don’t really use Linked In for much, so I may be misunderstanding what it can do for me, but I am not trying to filter out candidates in the way you’re thinking. I’m looking for a way to filter out the overwhelmingly white/male/upper class candidates you’re worried about so that I can make sure I have a sizable stack of female and minority candidates to consider. This is why mailing lists and resume databases are ideal because I know that the people the job posting is going to are the ones I want to make sure see it. Does that make sense?

      1. nobody

        I see what you’re after, but I don’t think you understand the problem with it. No one will be on these databases and mailing lists without being privileged or lucky. How do you even find out about them? How do you know which ones are reputable and which ones are just so much noise on the internet? How do you find out how to use them effectively? Someone has got to tell you. Either they’ll directly mentor you and tell you straight up. Or you’ll come from a background where you’re socialized to have a sense of how to figure it out yourself. There’s a serious amount of knowledge that people who aren’t born into it or mentored into it can’t access and people who were born into can’t imagine not having.

        Sure, I guess you can hire the more privileged and lucky minorities and women. But it’s deeply problematic. Every group has it’s own internal privilege structure. You can hire women, but not women from lower class backgrounds. You can hire African Americans whose parents already found a way into the middle class but odds are low that you find anyone from the inner city. You can hire Indians from the higher castes but you won’t find yourself an untouchable. You can hire a Hispanic who is descended from conquistadors but not a Hispanic who is descended from indigenous people or slaves. This might get you some diversity on your balance sheet, if that’s all your after. But you’re still denying access to the bulk of people in these underrepresented groups, and you’re passing over a lot of brilliance and potential along the way. People without privilege both within group and in our larger society can fight all odds, get into college, get a degree, and still not be allowed to compete for jobs because 80% of industry jobs aren’t publicly posted. You’re talking about keeping your job a secret to keep more white guys from applying, but in the process you’ll be keeping the job a secret from everyone who hasn’t received the mentorship to know about places to look for jobs beyond the obvious. I’d rather compete with privileged white males than not even hear about a job and therefore not be able to apply at all.

        1. ptp

          I understand your point but I disagree, in part because I think you’re making some incorrect assumptions. For one, as more people look to appropriate mailing lists and resume databases to find job candidates, those lists will become known as effective ways to find jobs. By merely publishing to them I am making the job visible and available according to the membership standards maintained by those lists. I don’t buy the critique that I’m being secretive simply by using them.

          Second, I’m asking specifically for ways to make sure I get a good set of resumes from women and minority candidates. Publishing the resume doesn’t guarantee I will get a lot of underprivileged applicants. It is an entirely passive approach, and I have no control or active ability to push people to apply simply by posting it someplace. What I’m looking for is a way to actively seek out candidates, regardless of whether or not I get a good sampling from Linked In or Craigslist or whatever. I’m not asking for help on how to post a job opening to the usual suspects because doing that here would make no sense. If there are ways to use those resources to get what I want, then I’m all ears, but that’s independent of the question I’m asking now.

          Third, the entire point of my question was to ask for ways to find the very people you’re talking about. You’re obliquely criticizing me for doing that. We’re looking for the same thing here, so I think a better approach would be to give me suggestions on how to find the underprivileged candidates you’re (we’re) talking about. The idea here is that I want to enable myself to look beyond the regular set of potential job candidates I would have were I to stick to the more conventional methods.

        2. ptp

          Another way to phrase this is to say, if I came in here saying I was looking to hire someone, and I posted the opening on our company website and to Generic Job Hunting Website and I got 3 female applicants out of 100, and not a single one of them met the requirements for the job, so I gave up trying, would you approve of my approach or would you criticize me for not taking a pro-active approach to finding more female applicants? I don’t know about you, but I would criticize the lack of pro-activity. The idea here is to make sure I have ways to be pro-active, regardless of how the more conventional methods pan out. :)

  3. jon

    Great post, Terri, and I totally agree. My observation is that most conference or panel organizers start by thinking of “the usual suspects” — the most prominent names in the field. And of course that’s exactly who everybody else is asking. So it’s important to think more broadly; and as well as tapping your networks directly, ask others (who have complementary connections) to help you reaching out. After a couple of years

    In terms of ptp’s point, one way to avoid having this be a surrogate is also to track gender ratios on attendance, organizing committee participation, and feedback. In terms of it being a distraction, well, it’s certainly only one of many issues affecting women in STEM. On the other hand, for conference organizers, it’s a place where they can have direct impact — and the great job women are doing on this front (including spotlighting the conferences that are still 90% male) helps bring attention to the broader issue.


    1. ptp

      I should’ve been more clear, I guess, but when I said it was a distraction, I mean that in context. The last 2 or 3 mainstream discussions (within the tech space, at least) about women in engineering have involved a discussion of getting women panelists and speakers at conference. That’s good because it adds a lot of visibility to an important topic, BUT I haven’t seen nearly as much open discussion on simply hiring women into positions they’re qualified for.

      I’m not blaming or attributing that absence to anyone. It’s largely a result of the fact that Michael Arrington doesn’t talk about hiring in his blog posts, he talks about finding speakers, and he’s a highly visible lightning rod for this sort of thing. Not a lot of people have the ability to start a discussion on the subject in the way he does. The other time I’ve seen this topic come up was for a fledgling tech conference in Atlanta. Maybe one reason for all of this is that you’re a lot less likely to get served with a discrimination lawsuit when you talk openly about how you find speakers than when you talk about how you hire.

      So when I say it can have a distracting effect, my point is to make sure that the more important issue of hiring isn’t forgotten, not to detract from the importance of women speakers and panelists at conference. When the pool of women in engineering is closer to equitable, I have a feeling the pool of speakers will reflect that. I don’t think the reverse is true, or if it is I don’t think it’s nearly as much so. That’s where I’m coming from when I call it a ‘distraction’. Maybe distraction is too strong a term to use in that sense without additional explanation, in which case my apologies for the poor choice of words.

    2. Dorothea Salo

      Re “a distraction,” I completely agree with you, and I think it’s also important to remember that invited-speaker gigs often have direct impact on the speaker’s career, whether by bringing her to the notice of people with opportunities or by enhancing her reputation inside her own workplace.

  4. Donnie Berkholz

    Another approach for finding women speakers that I haven’t seen mentioned is to ask the busy ones for three referrals. Keep following the chain as far as needed, and eventually you’ll come across potential speakers who are still on the “web of trust” so you can have some confidence that they will be good.

    1. Terri

      It’s actually mentioned in the second post I talked about (see #3 on that list), which is why I didn’t mention it in mine, but it’s definitely worth saying again!

      The corollary to that, of course, is that if you are incredibly busy you should try to have a list of 3-4 people you can refer. If you prep a small suggestion list in advance and keep it up to date, then it makes answering queries fairly quick! I don’t personally have speaking or interview opportunities coming out of my ears, but I do this for other common requests I get, like “do you do contracting work on Mailman?” or “do you know anyone looking for a job in Montreal?”

  5. John

    This has reminded me (distantly, but it’s the holiday season) of a piece of conversation from a film (Moonraker):

    Bond: Excuse me my name is Bond, James Bond. I’m looking for Dr Goodhead.
    Dr Goodhead: You just found her.
    Bond: A woman!
    Dr Goodhead: Your powers of observation do you credit, Mr Bond.

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