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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.


Todd Zaki Warfel said,

May 27, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

I’m on a research discussion panel next Monday for STC here in Philadelphia speaking with a few other very well known women in the research industry ( Actually, I’m on the only guy on this panel.


Lorelei said,

May 27, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

I think your previous post comments hit some key points: men talk more about less, are encouraged have bigger egos, and are generally societally encouraged to be noticed in public. I think it’s also more socialization issues: speaking requires some verbal aggression and confidence that girls generally aren’t given early on.

I think it’s really interesting that several of the women who commented earlier are important leaders who say they HATE to present. I can’t imagine that Erin or Chiara became the well-known consultants that they are by sitting quietly in the corner during meetings. Why is it that we, the verbal sex, don’t like to talk in public forums?

It took me about three years to even get up the nerve to post to an email list, and another to get up the nerve to present. I didn’t think I had anything useful to say, or that anyone would not pick me apart in public, just like on SIG-IA. It wasn’t until a very kind IA told me that the more you participate the more of the community you become that I wised up and started making powerpoints.

One thing I think might help with the IA summit in general is a new voices track, just for people who have never spoken before. I love seeing all the return faces, but I think we need new stuff (does anyone really need to hear me blab about screwing stuff up AGAIN?) and fresh insights. Short presentations with some suggested topics would help a novice presenter.

I think putting peer pressure on smart women is really crucial – we need to start advising and demanding that we hear from each other. We need to give each other better advice that emphasizes content and confidence (most of the advice other women have given me involves makeup, seriously – I know I’m not the most groomed of people, but I’m pretty sure no one told any of the guys to put on eyeliner.)

Here’s 7 ways to participate, build confidence, and test drive your ideas in a safe way:

1. Post to a listserv of your choice with a question or a comment twice a month. It’s just email. Start with the IA Institute list, before moving on to a tougher crowd.

2. Make sure you say something in your next meeting that ads value. Adding on to an already lucid point is fine. Make your own lucidity at the next meeting.

3. Get out and participate in your local community of practice. Just go to two meetings this year. Make 1 new friend.

4. Twitter. It’s tiny, it’s safe, but it’s public.

5. Lead something. Even if it’s just posting the announcement or bringing the napkins, it will make it easier to meet other people and feel like you’re not talking to strangers.

6. Introduce one other newbie or un-networked lady to your friends, male or female. Make them part of the cool kids.

7. Don’t want to talk? Publish. Even if it’s just your own blog.

Anyone else?


Livia said,

May 27, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

This is awesome Lorelei, thanks. (I really like the idea of a new voices track at the summit – will mention that to Samantha). Do you have any suggestions on how we can take this advice and make it reach more people? I’m considering some kind of “go to” place that could house tips, suggestions, war stories, discussions, etc.

I’m kind of surprised at how many people I’ve engaged with just via email, but I’m in the business of creating solutions that make use of the power the web (and everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer), so I’m also looking for ideas on how we can broadcast and engage a broader group of women than my contact list.


Jared M. Spool said,

May 27, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

As a conference producer, I like to think that I don’t take gender into account. In fact, 4 out of 11 presenters at the UI13 conference are women. (This winter’s UIE Web App Summit was a little worse with 4 out of 14 presenters.)

Right now, my big struggle is finding presenters who meet our quality constraints. We look for people who are leaders in the field with proven expertise.

It’s not easy for us to find the talent we’re seeking. Right now, we start working with potential presenters 18 months out from our programs, helping them organize their material and looking at their presentation skills.

If there are women (or men or any other gender type) that think they’d like to present at one of our events, please contact me. I’ll gladly work with you on your material and presentation skills. It’s hard work, but for those who are so inclined, it can be very rewarding.

Hope that helps.

– Jared


Livia said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

Jared, thanks for the incentive! Can you elaborate on your quality constraints? Could be helpful to hear more details on that to get some people motivated to do it. For example, what constitutes ‘leader in the field’ and what constitutes ‘proven expertise’?


Lorelei said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:10 pm

The most successful organization I have ever been involved with is DC Web Women. It is not as powerful as it used to be, but some factors that contributed to its wild success were/are:

- extremely moderated listserv, that encouraged questions/comments, no matter how newbie-ish or banal, and had strict, enforced guidelines for content and conduct

- strong leadership who was willing to put it all out there

- in person events, both at night and during lunch in different parts of DC, to give more opportunities to participate

- a social and a technical list – some people wanted to meet via the social list, some felt more comfortable on the tech list

The bottom line is that there were lots of places to participate, and a very safe climate to speak up in. Whether you think the problem is inexperience, gender or lack of confidence, it seems to me that some kind of training wheels are in order. How bout:

- a closed twitter group with a focus on those new to IAs – with some micromentoring (I’d be a better mentor if I could have more one-shot deals)? Q/A?

- more materials on how to present and make/defend arguments? I think most IAs tend to be a little shy or introverted by nature and everyone could use this kind of advice.

- facebook/linkedin/whatever’s next groups? Women Who Tech use facebook

- partner up with Women Who Tech, Women in Technology, Webgrrls, Webwomen, whoever else is out there

I’m sure I have more, but I need to go to bed….


Kimberly Blessing said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

Liv, here’s a great reference that was started — point Dani (and others) to it in order to help them find women speakers for their conferences: Geek Speak Women


Livia said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

Thanks Lorelei, I’m taking notes. Good ideas. I think I’ll start by getting acquainted with the successful DC groups (already in touch with Women Who Tech). Please keep the ideas rolling… I’ll figure out a way to bring it together.


Jared M. Spool said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

We specifically look for presenters we’ve never had before. We reserve a percentage of our speaking slots for new talent.

For the UI event, you need to have enough material for a full-day workshop. I spend a lot of time paying close attention to people who teach full-day seminars and tutorials at trade events, such as the IA Summit, UPA, CHI, and now the Interactions conference. I’m looking for folks who get a decent size crowd and a lot of post-session buzz. (If the buzz is good enough, we’ll forgo the crowd because we think we’ve got the marketing chops to make it worth our while. :) )

For our new Web App Summit, we look for people who can talk about some aspect of web-based applications in depth. We don’t want surface stuff that you can hear anywhere — it has to be something that really has meat on the bones. Again, a good part of my year is spent “talent scouting” out this material.

I need to know that you can hold an audience’s attention and that you’ve got something that people really want to hear. Unlike a lot of conferences, we have fewer presenters, so they all have to be really great.


Dan Saffer said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

We have struggled with this issue for two years now, programming Interaction08 and now Interaction09. As Chair, I made it a specific goal last year and only partially succeeded–only 1/3 women *even though it was a specific goal of mine to balance the program*.

I’ve tried to figure that out. As someone pointed out in one of these posts, simply more men submit proposals. Hopefully posts like this will change that.

Keynotes are particularly difficult. Why? Because you usually need a certain stature (which often comes with age) for keynotes, and there simply weren’t a lot of women in our field some 20+ years ago. You also need people who you know can speak, and to do that, you have to have been on the circuit for a while, and unless you submit a lot, that doesn’t happen. It’s a bad cycle that I hope gets broken.


Livia said,

May 27, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

That’s great feedback Jared, I’ll definitely pass it along. Hearing this, it’s no surprise that the UIE events are so good. And you know I’m not just saying as I have been there to prove it ;)

Good points Dan — understanding that cycle is also a helpful way to frame this conversations — so we can target ways to break it. I appreciate you making the specific effort to keep a good mix of people for the IxDA conference.


Karl said,

May 29, 2008 @ 8:23 am

Hi Livia,
I’ve taken the liberty of writing a post to build some bridges between you and two prominent bloggers (well one of them is former) who have been discussing this issue for a long time and can provide background. I’ve been a blogger since 1998/1999 (I’m ancient in blogging years) and it is astounding to me, saddening to me, that the question of conference diversity has come up time and again, were many offer solutions, post lists of Women domain experts and speakers for example for conference organizers, and nothing – nothing changes.

Anyways, here is the link:

I hope you reach out to them and they reach out to you.


Far McKon said,

June 24, 2008 @ 9:14 pm

It’s Far from TheHacktory in Philly. I helped (a bit) in getting IgnitePhilly to happen a few weeks back.

We’re starting already to pull folks and ideas together for the next one. If you want to get more women on stage, we could use suggestions for awesome women doing sweet stuff who would be willing to speak. Just drop me an email with any suggestions.

Hack on!
- Far


Far McKon said,

June 24, 2008 @ 9:15 pm

Or, you know. I could read the @#$! comments before I go shooting off my mouth, and visit geekspeakwomen.

But seriously, any suggestions are welcome and appreciated!

Hack on,


Jared M. Spool said,

July 6, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

Based on Far’s comments, I checked out Geek Speak Women.

Problem is, as a conference producer looking for fresh talent, it tells me virtually nothing about the talent that I might hire for one of our events.

I was hoping I’d see details about the topics and the depth of the speaker’s expertise. I need to know who is truly an expert that can talk to our audiences about the important topics.

How do we build a resource that brings that to the surface?



Livia said,

July 7, 2008 @ 2:17 am

I’ve been thinking about that Jared. I think you could get to that level of “reliability” on a person’s depth of understanding if that was evaluated by people who have attended and seen them speak before.

Here’s my idea: Imagine, for every conference or event, a speaker has a profile in X location (similar to GeekSpeakr). At the end of their talk, they upload their ppt to slideshare (note: partnership potential). and people can rate how the presentation itself was on a number of criteria (depth of knowledge, quality of ppt presentation, delivery, etc — the aspects you mentioned you look for in a good presenter).

With that you can have a speaker evaluated on a specific presentation/event, but aggregated across several events (specially interesting if they present on one topic multiple times), and even across several topics (and get a general sense of how good they are as a presenter, regardless of the specific topic).

You could even extend the cloud of info around the presentation by aggregating external references (twitter buzz, blogs buzz, etc, a la Lou’s UX Zeigeist)

The value of this information would increase over time (as it accumulates) because it would become richer with volume — aggregated amounts could also benefit from an algorithm that decreases value of very old presentation evaluations. (numbers could be simple averages or could be weighted to create an index, I’m not sure).

Finally, speaking and getting evaluated frequently would be highly encouraged because it could keep your “rates up” which make one more likely to be invited to speak again (by folks like you) and consequently, inspiring folks to speak more and more (addressing the core issue I’m trying to tackle with not enough women speaking).

What do you think?


Jared M. Spool said,

July 7, 2008 @ 9:15 am

Hi Livia,

It’s an interesting idea.

I like that I could see the topics and slides, though, in the Gar-Reynolds-Presentation-Zen world, slides are just images and titles and don’t really tell you what the presentation is about.

The ratings aren’t that useful to me, since there are lots of great presenters who aren’t appropriate for our events. What I’d be more interested in are testimonials that tell me who the attendee was (do they match my audience?), what they learned (was this topic interesting?), and how they applied it after they learned it (was it useful?).

Of course, these criteria are important to us. Other conferences that focus on more inspirational speakers are going to look for different criteria. We like inspiration, but want presenters who have deep, real-world experience that can really talk to a topic that is important to our audience.

Hope that helps,



Livia said,

July 7, 2008 @ 11:43 am

Great points Jared, thanks. I guess elaborating the criteria should only really happen after deciding who the audience for this really is :)

I can definitely see the value of the testimonial for that purpose. I wonder how inclined people are to write a testimonial (short? long? – Essay like a restaurant review or sentence-length like a Netflix review or eBay feedback?)

I think it would be powerful to combine that with numbers/ratings – perhaps asking people to pick from a spectrum of inspirational to technically applicable (or something like that) would be an additional way to assess the type of presenter/presentation.



Jared M. Spool said,

July 7, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

It already does happen in the form of blogging. I pay close attention to blog posts that talk about presentations people have heard.

Again, ratings without any qualifications of the raters isn’t very helpful. I’d like to know how individuals that interest me (are in my audience) give ratings and ignore the rest.

There are three basic models of speaker solicitation

1) Conferences ask for solicitations: These are things like the IA Summit, where a call goes out and, theoretically, the previous history or the quality of the presenter plays a back seat to the quality of the submission materials and the interest of the topic.

2) Conference seeks out great presenters by reputation: Here the conference organizers look for people and then let them speak on whatever they’d like to talk about. They market the conference by the reputation of the presenters.

3) Conference seeks out important topics by qualified presenters: In this model, the topics drive what presenters are chosen. The presenters still have to be great, but a great speaker that doesn’t match the topic will be rejected.

Our events are in the last category. There aren’t many events that follow our model, so it might not be something your resource would want to cater to. The first two models are far more commonplace.

It feels like what you’re thinking of is more geared to helping the reputations in the second model. You could provide a resource of posting calls, to help the speakers learn about the first model conferences.

Just a thought…



Livia said,

July 7, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

Thanks Jared, that’s very helpful. I think you’re right about my assumptions being more on the 2nd model — that’s the majority of requests I get — either for myself or asking to recommend other people.

I wonder if people have different expectations of events that select speakers in the three different models; and how that might impact people’s feedback (how their impression matches up to what they anticipated).


Whitney Hess said,

September 10, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

Livia, it was your email in May that first got me to seriously think about submitting a proposal for the Lightning Round at Interaction09, and I never would have considered running for the board of directors of the Information Architecture Institute if you hadn’t reached out and encouraged me to do it. While I might not be picked to speak in Vancouver, and while I might not be elected to the IAI board this year, I’m going to keep submitting to relevant conferences and keep putting my name in the hat. If we want to be considered equals, we have to have equal tenacity, and we have to demand to be recognized. I don’t think that any organization can enable this — it’s a movement. Women lifting up other women. Like you did for me. So thank you.


Livia Labate said,

September 10, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

Thanks Whitney, that made my day :) I agree with you — we need to keep pushing each other. Looking forward to seeing and hearing you out there!


Jared M. Spool said,

September 25, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

I think Whitney’s got the right idea. The more you can encourage each other, the more you’ll get into the important programs.

Visibility begets more visibility, in my experience.


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