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Archive for May, 2008

Women: the issue in women issues

I recently blogged about women speaking in conferences (or the lack thereof). Since then I have engaged in some fantastic conversations about it. I heard from several women and men on the topic via twitter, blog comments, emails and in person — everyone has something to say. Either an opinion on the causes, a suggestion on the solution, a testimonial in how that affected their own lives or just a word of encouragement on the relevance of the issue.

Today I received an email from Dani Malik asking for suggestions for women to speak at conferences. I provided suggestions and then proceeded to spam every woman I know professionally in my address book with the same request (sorry ladies… not really though). Regardless of putting a list together, I received some AMAZING responses, from testimonials, to references to anecdotes about being a woman and how that impacts their lives professionally, including speaking at conferences.

I’m still frustrated that I don’t have an identifiable “thing” that I feel I can do to affect this. Trying to tackle this issue is hard not because it’s just a hard issue, but it’s part of a more complex problem, which is women and career issues in general. Or women issues in general. It can be very easy to get stuck with paralysis by analysis – specially for me, the over-thinker.

I am not comfortable addressing feminist questions. Or discussing feminism. I suppose because I am part of a small elite and have been shielded from most of these issues. Maybe because I was brought up by a mother who told me constantly and repeatedly that I could do anything, a grandmother that would play ‘president’ with me (where I was president of Brazil and she was my second-in-command) and a grandfather who challenged my intellect at every opportunity. Or maybe because I really didn’t care about what other people had to say about roles. Or maybe because I was always a big sports jock and I firmly believe that being involved in sports, specially in leadership roles, make a big difference in how you face other non-sport situations. Who knows, whatever the reason, I have not experienced or never felt strongly that I was discriminated or been presented with barriers that were that different from what my male counterparts were presented with.

Or maybe not, maybe I’m just kick-ass talented and know how to overcome such barriers — but even writing that makes me feel self conscious (very likely the reflex of being brought up ‘as a woman’, where regardless of your cultural background and upbringing, will likely assume modesty as positive trait). Still, whatever the genesis, I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to discuss bigger feminist issues, so I’ll try and stay away from that (while probably very relevant and likely an influencer on the issue of speaking at conferences).

So ladies, what is up with us? I don’t want to ask why are we not speaking at conferences anymore, but what can we do, what can I do, to encourage and support you to do it? What’s missing? Where’s the tipping point? Are we missing tools? Understanding of the ROI? Time? Motivation? Peer pressure?

What would help you? I want to hear it – I’m very interested in doing something about it.

Speak up

I am going through a big pile of paper I’ve accumulated in the last couple of months. It’s interesting to do this because without fail, every time, I’ll see repetitive notes on the same thing, which usually indicates there is a topic that’s recurring but nothing is being done about it.

The most recurring note that I found, from different contexts and conversation, was ‘why aren’t more women presenting at conferences?’ I don’t have an answer for that and don’t really know what I can do about it. I’m forcing myself to deal with everything in this pile so I figured writing about it would help me think through that issue.

I truthfully never really cared about that. In the past I was usually so amped that I got to go to a conference or talk that I didn’t much mind who was talking. I notice though that almost every time I return from a conference, someone I know will ask that question. Living in the US has also heightened my perception of that fact. I don’t think I experienced an unbalanced ratio of women speaking in public back in Brazil.

I was discussing this with Kit the other day and she made an observation about seeing presentations that make her go “I can do that!”. I feel that way all the time. But I don’t really present much. Why is that? I know I procrastinate a lot, but I actually do enjoy presenting things to people — but I can’t remember when was the last time I gave a public presentation.

Last year I remember reading Kottke’s post on this topic and his conclusion “[these] concerns are not getting through to conference organizers or that gender diversity doesn’t matter as much to conference organizers as they publicly say it does.” I think that’s partially true; I believe we haven’t gone from ‘aware of the issue’ to ‘acting on it’. And that’s probably because it’s not clear what can be done.

So what can be done? It’s easy to blame conferences, but I’ve been part of conference committees and I really don’t know what we could have done differently to address the issue. I’m hoping to ask that question to more of my peeps and see if I can get some ideas, but I have a hypothesis. When these issues come up, we usually try to look for the root cause (and that’s a lot of effort in itself), so we never really spend the energy working on a solution.

While that makes people aware of origins of the problem, still doesn’t help anyone much. We learn that women typically have family commitments that take precedence over career building activities like public speaking, that some have high standards for what they would talk about and feel like they don’t know enough so they don’t present, etc, etc, etc…

That reminds me of what Jesse said at five-minute madness during the last IA Summit when he was disappointed that new people didn’t come up to the microphone: most folks presenting are making it up as they go. It’s entirely true. And that’s not a negative thing, it’s just a fact. But I do know that myself and other women I know feel strongly that just making something up to talk seems wrong in some way. Why? No real reason I can think of – even if you’re presenting something very rough, putting it out in the world allows that thinking to evolve. Presenting is not regurgitating wisdom, it’s about initiating conversations.

I’m starting to think we’re mistaking facts of life with empty excuses. For example, I have a tendency to over-think things. I can come up with every edge case and scenario you can think of for a given situation, which makes me a good information architect, but a very frustrated person. So it’s easy to think of reasons why I shouldn’t bother to make professional public speaking happen.

But deep down I know it’s important. It’s important because it brings diversity to the conversations that people get exposed to, it’s important because it gives me professional visibility, it’s important because of a number of other things. It’s important — when something is important you just make the time, you make it happen. I am pretty sure that most women know that this is important.

There is nothing at all preventing more women from engaging in professional public speaking. Let me propose an approach then:

If every woman I know professionally today makes a pledge to speak in at least one conference in 2008, I am confident we can make a difference in presenter diversity issue from previous years.

I may not be famous, but I know a lot of people professionally. A lot of them are women. What do you say, shall we?

Social Noise

Being part of the privileged few that are overwhelmed by social networks (contrary from friends’ popular belief that everyone has that problem), I’ve started to experience level of noise as I use various systems that was not there before.

I have always jumped on the alpha and beta band-wagons and am the first in line of coming soon lists, so I join stuff just to see what it’s like left and right. While that has always generated a volume of username and passwords I couldn’t possibly keep track off, it’s sort of a non-issue as some of these services become uninteresting and whiter.

Recently, though, a lot of the these services have started to become more of connectors of existing services than anything else. While openness and sociability have long been attributes of these systems, it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve seen it realized in the sense of function reuse and content cross-pollination.

Jott is a really nice service that allows you to call in and leave notes to self and others. It also allows you to automagically have your notes transfered to I Want Sandy, which is another service with similar intention but different approach. I Want Sandy allows me to interact with it via Twitter, which serves an entirely different purpose, but which has a very good input method that’s omnipresent in my life.

As you can imagine, this results in triplication of information — which totally works in these three instances because things only get divulged to the connected services to the extent that I want (as defined by my preferences). Not all systems play nicely like that though. And it becomes increasingly difficult to remember which systems I can count on and rely on to get to what I have gathered.

Last week I was in Chicago and I took this photo at Midway airport as I proceeded to the TSA line. I captured that with the intention to share it with Jared, who loves TSA as a metaphor in his presentations. I snapped the photo with my phone and uploaded directly to Flickr. Then I sent Jared a public message via twitter about it. Jared is connected to me on Flickr, so he probably also saw it on his friend feed. Because my message was public, Bill followed the link (he is also connected to me on Flickr so he’d get it eventually anyway) and added a comment asking if he could use the photo for a presentation. I immediately went to Twitter and told him he could. Then I thought maybe I should post that comment on Flickr as well in case anyone else wanted to use that photo. Two minutes later I checked my email and Bill had asked me the same question in a message (probably thinking I would not see his comment on Flickr soon enough). I wrote him back in confirmation.

Then I stopped and realized a) the sheer amount of content produced throughout this story b) the amount of interactions across and within different systems that allowed this to happen and c) the convoluted duplicated and triplicated content that came out of it as a result.

What this will mean for the non-hardcore early adopters of tomorrow? Will any of these products even reach such audiences? Will these things also wither and die for me because of the cumulative effect of these small duplicative efforts? How long until this social noise gets in the way of the conversations I actually want to have?