Tag Archives: linuxchix

Finding more women to speak at Ohio LinuxFest: success!

This post is being cross-posted on Mackenzie’s blog.

Given Terri’s recent post about the same few women always being speakers, I thought this would be a good place to write about how one conference I help out with, Ohio LinuxFest, has tried to expand their array of women speakers. For those interested in pretty graphs, I’ve been graphing women speaker proportions at various LinuxFests on the GeekFeminism Wiki. This post was co-authored with Moose J. Finklestein, the Content Chair.

Some conference organisers will say “we didn’t get any submissions from women” to explain the lack of women on their stages. As of two years ago, the Ohio LinuxFest was in that category. With a little outreach effort, and embracing diversity as a core value, the Ohio LinuxFest has successfully recruited more women to share their experience at OLF.

How’d we do? While last year only five of the speakers at Ohio LinuxFest were women, out of a total of 31, this year 14 of the 38 speakers are women. That’s a third of the conference speaking slots! One of the two keynoters is a woman. There were 107 talk proposals for the 27 general speaking slots. Before anyone tries to suggest that we simply took them all, it should be noted that a full 48% of the proposals for talks categorised as not assuming high levels of prior knowledge (making them suitable for the most attendees) were from women.

We believe that much of this success is attributed to community outreach. This year, we contacted Ubuntu Women, Debian Women, LinuxChix, DevChix, and the FSF’s Women’s Caucus mailing list about the call for presentations, and did it have an effect!

Recognising the various concerns women speakers can face, we tried to specifically address potential issues in the email sent to women-focused mailing lists. Some of these known issues include lack of confidence in new speakers, not being clear what the intended audience is, or the “imposter syndrome,” where someone doesn’t recognize that they are qualified to speak on a topic. The woman to woman dialog made the difference.

We wanted to make sure people weren’t refraining from submitting because they lack confidence in their technical abilities (an excuse we’d heard before), so we explained the attendees’ demographics, hoping to get more proposals that would fill the gap we had for user-aimed talks. Ohio LinuxFest has everything from home desktop users who started using Ubuntu a week ago (or even that day!) to seasoned system administrators who love Slackware, Gentoo, or NetBSD. Nevertheless, beginner proposals have tended toward introduction to development topics, not leaving enough for people who want to be users, not developers. We also made sure to mention that it’s a great crowd who is very welcoming of first-time speakers.

Women are involved with more than just speaking at the Ohio LinuxFest. Beth Lynn Eicher has been actively involved as a director for 6 years now, and the current staff, all volunteers, is about 35% female.

The Ohio LinuxFest takes pains to create a weekend conference friendly to all people, not just women. The diversity statement includes gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, and even operating system — folks who don’t use Linux are just as welcome as those who love it. There are regularly talks about or including BSDs, interoperability in heterogeneous environments, and cross platform free software.

Additionally, all speakers are instructed to keep the content of their presentations clean. The Ohio LinuxFest bills itself as a family friendly conference and aims to keep it that way. As an effort to make a positive effect with the community at large, the Ohio LinuxFest will host the second annual Diveristy in Open Source Workshop on September 12, 2010.

Looking at the growing trend of more female influence on the OhioLinuxFest we’d like to see it be the leader for more women to attend and become more involved with other free software interests.

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.
  • Geekspeakr.com 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!

Linux.conf.nz and DrupalSouth

Thanks to lots of people who encouraged me to submit talks and apply for money, and thanks to the sponsorship from linux.conf.nz and Google, I went to two conferences in New Zealand last week. For a week and a half I hung out with linuxchix, people from #geekfeminism, and Drupal folks. It was GREAT. I met a zillion people, gave three talks, and learned a lot.

Kelly picked me up from the airport on Saturday. The next day she and Daniel drove me and some friends all over the south end of the island. Sunday, I sneaked away from the welcome sessions and “how to give a talk” tutorials to visit the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, where I saw a lot of wet birds, fern trees, and a tuatara. There was also a historical display with an excerpt from the Diary of Laura Fitchett, an early British settler. It went like this: “Wet today. Still wet. Very wet. Could not dry the clothes. Too wet for laundry. Rained again.” Kind of like most of my visit to Wellington!

wellington blogger

On Monday, we had the Haecksen/Linuxchix mini-conference. Lana Brindley did a great writeup of it. I especially enjoyed Sara Falamaki’s “Happy Hackers, Happy Code” talk even though it made me cry a little bit to think that things might be so nice. Sara outlined some specific advice for good tools and processes for version control, knowledge management, task tracking, build system, testing systems, and development itself, and going for goals like code that improves by shrinking in size, while she threw candy with a wicked overhand at us for participation. Suggestions for great tools from the audience: Valgrind, whiteboards and markers, printf, virtualization, backups, bugzilla summary reports, google docs, RT, your mouth, nice commit messages, Firebug and Web Developer, good sys admins, and pastebin.

Lana and Sara at lunch: Lana and Sara

I gave my talk “Code of Our Own” which was really Advanced Feminist Solidarity Theory for Coders. We have named the problem, documented it a lot, and we have lots of “Women in Thingie” groups with overlapping memberships. We have some efforts at classes and mentoring. That’s great. What now? What do we need? What helps and what might be helpful to try? My thoughts here are mostly: let’s code together. In meetups, friendships, miniconferences, unconferences or open space, and so on.

My favorite bit is where I said how teaching programming to 11 year old girls is awesome but it’s not helping us, the ones doing the coding now and dripping out of the leaky pipeline, and when I report problems I face and then a bunch of guys go “Oh, well, I know the answer, let’s go teach some 11 year old girls” there’s no way I can argue with their awesome altruism because they’re doing a good thing, but they might as well have said “Sucks to be you, bitter old hag, we’ll just start over then with some tabula rasa infants.” Good luck with that; sounds like a recipe for repeating the same conversation for the next 30 years. It was nice to say a few outrageous crude things while then slipping back into constructive, positive, niceness and yet during both the mean-ass and the pollyanna moments, seeing so many women’s faces around the room nodding, smiling, and cracking up. So, the slides give you a feel for what I talked about, but if you want the full talk with all the jokes and asides and digressions, there is a Code of Our Own video on the Internet Archive which you can download. There will be videos of all the talks very soon from LCA.

Joh Clarke’s talk on security was hilarious and scary. Her point was that the sky has already fallen and you can’t assume anything is secure and we need to face that, somehow, without having the Howard Hughes learns about Germ Theory reaction. She managed to be scary, reassuring, and devastatingly wry all at once, with pictures of her cat breaking into various boxes.

Afterwards a bunch of us went to the Catalyst office where Joh works and worked on moving the geekspeakr.com site to a new server. Emma Jane, who is a freelancer and author of Front End Drupal, awesomely outlined all the things we would need to do on a whiteboard. It was great. She broke it down into a lot of steps so that lots of people could contribute and this also clarified everything to be done.

to do list for geekspeakr move

Emma Jane is also the person who knit the famous Drupal Socks.

Emma Jane's Drupal Socks

It struck me that there were an awful lot of steps to do this seemingly simple thing (as usual) and each step required a set of esoteric and non-obvious background knowledge. We needed sys admins. We had them! We needed people to fuck around on the command line installing and configuring things and moving things around into version control and making it work. (That was me and Angie, and it’s my particular skill.) We needed front end people to scoot blocks around and write themes! And people to document what we did! And we needed people to buy beer and do QA and do all the other things which I didn’t notice happening because I was installing and configuring. Yay!

Here are a bunch of us poking away at the server!


We got pretty far, but didn’t finish upgrading or theming. I’m probably going to go do the upgrade. Janis (who is usually a gcc hacker and who explained allpairs and Delta to me; they help her debug) did some QA on the site the next day. I was happy to be sharing a keyboard with Angie Byron who is a kick ass Drupal core developer.

Elky, Cat, Joh, and the Linuxchix Gentlemen’s Auxiliary were there doing stuff too! I ended up feeling like I would happily work with any of them, any time. They’re sensible! Smart! Nice! They get things done.

Here we are feeling tired and happy!


It was like Christmas – I hung out with kick ass open source people all day long, heard great talks, gave a talk and asked for more coding and development with other women, and then got to do that very thing with people I greatly admire!

I felt inspired to FOR SURE make it to the CodeChix meetup next time it happens in the SF Bay Area.

So, I have a lot more to say and will have to post several more times about linux.conf.au and about DrupalSouth. Stay tuned!

And a final thought about the joy of coding with others:

To be of use
by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Girly geekdom for girls… only?

Several of the front page posters here are participating in discussions on the Python diversity email list, a list created by Python community member Aahz to discuss diversity problems in the Python programming language community. The initial aim of the list is creating a diversity statement like that of the Dreamwidth community.

Some of the more problematic discussions on the list come down to “this stuff is hard, and hard to talk about, and people get angry and defensive when things are hard.” I don’t want to discuss the tenor or direction of the discussions there in general in this post though, I want to talk about a specific incident. A poster to the list made reference to being “beaten up by a girl” (in a metaphorical sense, what had actually happened was off-list criticism from a woman, not physical violence). A 101 discussion followed, and while it was pretty clear to most people posting that the framing played right into the idea that being beaten by women, physically or in argument, is emasculating, it took a surprisingly long time until it was pointed out, originally by me, eventually also by Aahz in a separate thread, that “girls” is a problematic term. It seems this was a new idea even to some of the more pro-feminist posters.

Now despite the Python diversity list’s innocence, calling women “girls” even in conversations where men are just “men” is not a new problem. As I pointed out to someone on identi.ca, Wikipedia has a prominently placed discussion of how there are few neutral terms for women, especially more informal ones. And the geek feminism groups have run into it ourselves. We have LinuxChix and Girl Geek Dinners. One syllable terms make for snappy names and the “girl geek” alliteration has zing. Reclaiming problematic terminology has a long history, but one of the appeals is that it’s just plain fun, and it’s happened to some extent with the term “geek” as well.

But how much are we playing into the idea that geek feminism is for young women, that once first year CS is gender balanced we’re done here? I’ve seen concerning things. LinuxChix’s name has on occasion drawn young women who explicitly say they only want to interact with other young women. LinuxChix and Girl Geek meetups are often just as inconveniently timed and placed for primary carers as LUGs and gaming groups. When Julie Gibson interviewed me for Ada Lovelace day, she talked about how LinuxChix turned out not to be for her, she’s too far removed in time from having enough geek hours in her life to learn Linux. An older woman—in her late forties, perhaps, well outside the Australian LinuxChix demographic—at our LinuxChix miniconf in 2008 said that she’s careful to avoid becoming a “face” for women in IT: she thinks no teenage girl wants to grow up to be her. It reminded me of Lauredhel’s post at Hoyden About Town, Monica Dux thinks I’m bad for feminism’s image, about the trend to say it’s great to be a proud feminist, as long as you aren’t a marketing problem for the feminism brand. Is it only great to be a woman geek if you’re exactly what the guys on Slashdot are asking for, 18 and single and heterosexual and able to fix your own computers, thus making time for everyone’s two favourite leisure activities, gaming and sex? Of course not. But I’m worried that we’re talking about ourselves as though it is.

This is hard for me. I’m in my twenties. It’s a lot easier for me to think about what my fifteen year old girl geek self would have wanted from geek feminism than what the sixty year old woman I hope to be will want. But we should. What does geek feminism look like, for women who aren’t girls any more and don’t want to be?

Why we document

A comment over on the Geek Feminism wiki asked whether we aren’t damaging the community by documenting sexism. I don’t want to get too 101 on our fine blog, but I do want to talk about why I consider our pretty long list of sexist incidents in geekdom a success.

My first geek feminist forum, and still the one I participated longest in and therefore in many ways most influential on me, was LinuxChix. Things I learned over there included the reasons why having men dominate conversations can be anti-feminist, via the discussion around the document now available as behaviour in technical forums, which was originally a response by Valerie Aurora to a problem where the LinuxChix techtalk list was seeing fewer and fewer posts by women and was generally perceived as scary and hardcore.

We also had a long-standing problem articulating what it was that led to the extreme gender imbalance in Free Software development and many of its user communities. I can’t speak for the community, but what I remember feeling about those discussions was a major unease. There was sexism in computing and in Free Software… probably? Some women had stories, some women didn’t. There was social, peer and societal pressure on young women considering science and technical careers or even on developing those skills… probably? Again, some women had stories, some didn’t.

Had you asked me in 2003 for troublesome incidents in Free Software—are we doing anything wrong, or is this a problem we’ve inherited from other people who did things wrong, or is this just a thing about women, that they don’t like to be too nerdy in their spare time?—I don’t know that I would have been able to give you examples of anyone doing anything much wrong. A few unfortunate comments about cooking and babies at LUGs, perhaps. Things started to change my awareness slowly. Valerie’s 2002 HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux dug up some incidents at LUGs. In 2005 LinuxChix itself got some attention from (trigger warning) the troll Skud posted about. I was personally present at a sexualised presentation, the Acme::Playmate presentation at the Open Source Developers Conference in 2006. And in 2007, very soon after I had seen Kathy Sierra keynote linux.conf.au 2007, she was scared out of her work writing about technology by (trigger warning) online harrassment and for the first time, I personally saw the Internet explode over the issue of active, virulent sexism against women in technology.

I do not in fact find writing the wiki documentation of incidents in geekdom very satisfying. The comment linked at the beginning of the post compared the descriptions to a rope tying geekdom to the past. Sometimes being known as a wiki editor and pursued around IRC with endless links to yet another anonymous commenter or well-known developer advising women to shut up and take it and write some damned code anyway is like a rope tying me to the bottom of the ocean.

But what makes it worth it for me is that when people are scratching their heads over why women would avoid such a revolutionarily free environment like Free Software development, did maybe something bad actually happen, that women have answers. It’s not the only answer, there’s still all that social, peer and societal pressure, the shorter leisure hours, and so on, after all. And there’s no level of harrassment or cruelty that won’t find someone, plenty of someones, prepared to immediately argue that it’s really no big deal, what are you doing here, giving up? Letting them win? But now if when I’m asked about whether geek women have problems and why there aren’t more of us, I’m not left fumbling to explain it even to myself.

I don’t know what the Mary of 1999 (my watershed geek year wasn’t 1998, in fact) would have done if she’d come across that page in more or less the condition the wiki comment described, “the girl entering the community without any predispositions”, the woman vulnerable to being misled into thinking that geekdom is full of scoundrels (or, we might argue, not entirely misled). Maybe she would have run, I can’t say for sure that she wouldn’t have. But what woman is without baggage? In 1999 as a teenage girl with hair flowing down to my waist (I tell you what, short hair has cut my street harrassment down nearly as much as it cut my grooming routine down) I walked down the street to the steady beat of rape threats from passing vehicles. At least I would have found that geek women were talking about it and had got together and got each other’s back.