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Open Question: Women speakers at conferences?

03-05-2009 4,868 views Misc 22 Comments

Anonymous asks:

I know this is a male dominated field, but can't the events like CFUnited find any female programmers to speak? Maybe all the girls work for Adobe and can't get away...

It would be nice to hear from a top female programmer and her experiences not only in the workplace but with CF. Even just for some fresh air. The aftershave at these events just kills me.

Just a thought. You've been a big help for me with CF. Later.

So I set this blog entry's title to Open Question because I have absolutely no idea what to tell her. I do have some experience with selecting speakers. I'm on the advisory panel for CFUNITED. I do not speak for CFUNITED, or cfObjective, or any other conference (and I'd love to hear from people helping managing these conferences), but I can say that I generally tend to only focus on the subject matter of a session when I'm picking which ones should be done. I try to keep in mind what sessions are fresh since folks don't like to see the same thing twice. But in terms of the person, well, I do know that big names tend to draw crowds, but in general, unless I've heard something negative about the speaker, I'm not going to really think much about the person presenting.

I think we can all say that the pool of female speakers is very small. If the percentage of people willing to speak at a conference is a minority in the pool of developers, and women are already a minority in this group, it seems like you are going to have a real difficult time getting more women speakers.

Any comments? Suggestions?


  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:10 PM
    Try looking at more UI / Javascript centric talks. I've been to a few UI centric things like FOWD and Colin Mook - there's loads of ladies at stuff like that. If we could get some of them to speak, that would be nice.

    I know its a bit off topic from CF, but the conference seems to be broadening anyway. Just a thought.
  • Richard Hughes #
    Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:11 PM
    Give away Louis Viton hand bags. My non-technical would write a doctoral thesis on a ColdFusion topic for that motivation.
  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:14 PM
    I love this question!

    I agree, we need more women speakers! Selene Bainum will be added next month as a speaker. She along with Jeremy Kadlec and Nate Nelson will be organizing a Database track for CFUnited. Don't forget Dee Sadler is speaking as well.

    Anyways, I know from looking at the registrations we have now, there are a good handful of women. Each year I'm happy to say we've increased that number.

    I'm curious as to what we can do to attract more women to the conference myself.

    BTW, The call for speakers had only 3 or 4 women submit topics.
  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:19 PM
    So, as a female speaker at CFUnited 09, I can say that there are many women I know that are CF'ers. But, this goes the same for men as women, but you can be the best coder/design/whatever there ever was and if you can't effectively speak or don't like speaking in front of a crowd, well then that's a problem.

    You are right Ray, it's a ratio issue. (everyone who reads this should be freaked out I personally made a math reference) Speaking in front of a room of geeks dissecting your code would or would be intimidating to almost anyone but the most seasoned of speakers. That's why there are rock star speakers in the first place.

    I know Liz tried really hard at the 08 conference to get more women speakers. So, it's not for a lack of trying.

  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:33 PM
    Here in Washington DC Metro area, there is an organization - DCWebwomen -

    I know there are similar groups all over the US. Conference organizers may want to check with these organizations to see if there are anyone who would be interested in speaking at conferences. Sometimes it's just that one doesn't find out about speaking opportunities until it's too late to submit proposals.

    Another factor might be that some women simply don't have the time to leave their families to speak at conferences. What to do about this, I don't know.
  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:47 PM
    cf.Objective() 2009 has two female speakers: Laura Arguello (Mate Flex Framework) and Gail "Montreal" Shoffey Keeler (Payment Processing Paradigm).

    Very few women submit topics and so only a handful get known as speakers and when a conference committee invites speakers (as cf.Objective() does for the first round) there's a very small pool to draw from.

    In addition to the names mentioned so far, Sandy Clark is another notable (female) speaker and... I'm drawing a blank after that (apologies to anyone whose talk I've attended in the past since I'm just terrible with names!).
  • Vicky #
    Commented on 03-05-2009 at 5:49 PM
    Excuse me, but Louis Vuitton? That's the most sexist thing I've ever heard.

    The answer here is obvious. Stop scheduling conferences to take place while I'm PMSing. ;)
  • Rachel Luxemburg #
    Commented on 03-05-2009 at 6:04 PM was created specifically to have a resource for female conference speakers. There are other resources as well.

    Ultimately, though, there are fewer female technical speakers at conferences because there are fewer women in this field. If a conference organizer wants to have more diversity at their conference, they need to work harder to make that happen. It's a lot easier to just work with the sessions submitted than to have to beat the bushes looking for qualified women who might not have submitted a topic but are willing and able to present.

    There's not a lot of female user group managers either, and I know I make a point of trying to recruit more. Even so, it's a challenge.
  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 6:39 PM
    The only presentation with female presenter that I have listened to is:

    Mate @ 360|Flex conference
  • Commented on 03-05-2009 at 9:21 PM
    We are constantly trying to change this with FITC. We work hard to find female speakers for our events. We have a few but we want more. There just seem to be fewer women talking about what they do on blogs or in books or magazines so it's more of a challenge to track them down. Rarely do we get any female speakers actually submitting proposals.

    Similar in-balances exist in the attendee numbers as well. Based on our own personal experiences within the industry we know that there are in fact far more women working in the industry than what we are seeing at our events. That's why this year we decided to do something about it. Our feeling is that women aren't being given the opportunity, for whatever reason, to attend events, so we are giving away 100 tickets to women. The response so far has been great. You can find out more about this here:

    And if anyone knows any women who would be great speakers about Flash or Actionscript or who are doing really innovative design work, let me know!
  • big rig #
    Commented on 03-06-2009 at 12:34 AM
    it would be great to see men and women speaking at the conferences... but as a woman, i can say that what i prefer is that the best person to present the topic would be selected... regardless of gender... although i have noticed the deficit of women speaking at events... i cannot say it diminishes my learning experience.

    and no thanks to the louis vuitton comment above even if all in good fun. not only is it a sexist comment, but it is also misspelled! (besides, i know several men who would come up and speak for free fashion gifts... not all programmers are fashion ignorant!)

    honestly, i would be interested to see some statistically corrected analysis as to how many women apply to speak and are rejected as compared to men. that would be a better indicator purely than the observation that there are more men at these events than women... perhaps there just are not as many women trying to get a spot in proportion to the male segment?
  • Sarah #
    Commented on 03-06-2009 at 7:09 AM
    I think it's probably a simple matter of numbers too.

    @Liz: A couple of ideas: advertise the no lines in the ladies room! It's certainly not something that would be a deal breaker, but simply pointing it out shows some of the fun attitude that is present at CFUnited. Also, I think you could have a women's BOF.
  • Commented on 03-06-2009 at 7:57 AM
    This is a great question and dialog for the community. I too have noticed that the presenters at CF conferences are almost completely male, and also lack ethnic diversity, which does not represent the wealth of diversity in the community.

    I am a woman and minority who has been working in the IT field for 20 years, though it was not something I studied in college, rather, fell into through a series of excellent circumstances and opportunities.

    I think presenting, regardless of field, requires a special skill that is not innate to most, though can be learned and developed. A good presenter captures the audience's attention through the method of delivery on a topic of interest. People have different communication strengths, and public speaking is definitely a strength required for presenting. Also, certain personality types lend themselves well to public communication. Extroverts tend to do better in public speaking than introverts, and while it's a stereotype, it's one that has some truth to it--techies are not noted for their comfort in public speaking nor for their great public speaking's not a natural skill most of us in this field have. Though we can learn to present well, for most of us, it will never be in our comfort zone.

    I've also noticed that presenters tend to be the 'celebrities' of the CF community. This can be intimidating to those of us who might consider presenting. We feel that perhaps what we know is not as good, as interesting, or as technically advanced as those who present frequently.

    I think that the User Groups can help in this area by discussing presentation methods and encouraging members to present to the group, perhaps smaller topics to the group, such as how a certain problem in their work was solved. This can be a great training ground in preparation for presenting at conferences.

    The CF community is the best sharing community I've experienced over the years. So perhaps we should start sharing presentation how-tos in addition to the technical knowledge we freely distribute.

    But I also think we as a community should try to determine why the overwhelming majority of conference attendees, and the majority of bloggers,etc, are white male. What's holding the rest of the community back from attending and blogging? The community is very diverse, so why is the diversity not represented in attendance (or presenters) and blogs?

    CFUnited is the best conference, year after year, I've attended (as a side note, it's the only CF conference I've attended, haven't yet had the opportunity to attend the other CF conferences out there...). Perhaps there should be topic(s) on presenting and writing.

    When presentations are received for consideration, what does the reviewing panel look for? How do they evaluate the proposed presentations? When calls for presentations go out, perhaps there can be some guidelines that go with it to assist those of us who are new to presenting that can assist us in developing a winning presentation.

    And perhaps we can survey the community and evaluate the responses to try to determine what's causing the lack of diversity in conference attendance, presenting, blogging, etc., so that we can come up with some solutions. Perhaps the CFUnited site is the place to do it?

    P.S. We LOVE our CF 'celebrities', and they've helped and encouraged us to grow in our work and skills over the years.
  • Vicky #
    Commented on 03-06-2009 at 7:58 AM
    At first glance, I thought that said advertise in the ladies' room. I imagined "For a good preso, call 410-555-4646." :)

    I must say, i DID enjoy having the restrooms virtually all to myself between presos last year. I would also enjoy a women's BOF, though the sci-fi BOF might still trump it.
  • Commented on 03-06-2009 at 8:16 AM
    @Michele - I wanted to comment specifically on one part of your comment - using the user group to help teach presenting. You know, that's not a bad idea, especially since most UGs have to scrounge up speakers and really push members to volunteer to speak.
  • Commented on 03-06-2009 at 9:19 AM
    @Michele Those are some great thoughts. Especially the idea of holding sessions/workshops on how to give presentations and what we are looking for. I think I'm going to propose this to my team and see if we can do this at FITC in April.

    As for using the user groups to help people learn to present. We definitely do this at FlashinTO. In fact several FITC speakers started out doing user group presentations.
  • Commented on 03-06-2009 at 12:05 PM
    @Michele, I like the idea of a survey. I'll contact you offline to maybe work on a survey together. I'm curious myself.

    In the past people probably noticed that I was too shy to get on stage. Being one of the easily recognized faces of the community is really intimidating. I've been to events like MAX and people recognize me at almost every corner. Over time I learned to embrace it. I try not to hide anymore.

    Some tips I'd give women (even men) is to start speaking at your local user group obviously, but in my case I've been speaking at colleges and high schools to get over my fears. Its a lot less intimidating and they really admire someone taking the time to talk to them from the real world perspective. I recommend it to everyone.

    As far as this year's event, Michael Smith is no longer giving Keynote welcome/intro. It will be me. I haven't announced that publicly yet because I'm SUPER nervous but really excited. I'm recruiting some of my advisory members to help me figure out the best intro (fun and entertaining is the key).

    I think women are worried about image more than anything. At least that was my fear. I think this blog will make women think that its ok to put yourself out there. No one is going to judge you heavily... at first. If you remain true to yourself and listen to the feedback people give you, the community will love you. Let the harsh stuff roll off your back but understand where it comes from.

    I'm going to propose a challenge to women, I'll open up 5 more topic slots for women starting today. Submit on the call for speakers until March 20th.
    I'll post all the choices in a survey on March 23rd and let the community vote again for two weeks. And to further my support I'm going to submit a topic as well.

    Secondly, I'm going to see if Charlie Arehart could do an online User Group talk about presenting and guidelines. Maybe he can organize a few different ones from various super star speakers.

    Third, I'll publish a blog entry on with what I think makes a great speaker. I see all the feedback and I hear all the complaints. There are some no nos.

    Thanks again Ray for this entry!
  • Commented on 03-06-2009 at 6:01 PM
    Liz -- awesome idea and thanks for stepping up. How about posting that call to the UGM list as well?
  • Commented on 03-06-2009 at 8:13 PM
    I am doing a BOF. It's a Developer vs. Designer BOF. We are making a checklist and guidelines for designers to use. Designers don't know what they don't know. We can help them out by giving them a checklist. :) My focus this year is shortening the gap between designers and developers. I considered a Pimp Your Personal Brand BOF, but would take suggestions. :)

  • Carly #
    Commented on 03-08-2009 at 9:57 PM
    I meant to reply earlier but got lost in work... anyway..

    I'm a flash/flex programmer and did my first conference presentation last year at webdu and are again presenting again this year. I also recently became the co-manager for our local flash platform usergroup.

    I had been lucky enough to go to webdu for the last few years and at the 2007 conference realised that I had the same level of skills/experience as some of the other presenters (not the superstars). So when the call for papers came around again I pushed myself out of my comfort zone (very hard) and put in an application. It was also a good way to guarantee a trip to the conference as work had tightened the purse strings ;)

    I too would expect a conference to select the best topic/presenter regardless of gender and would hope that I was chosen for my experience/skills over my gender.

    That said, I recently have started to wonder where all the other women are. I’m 26 now and starting to think more about a family etc and therefore all the typical questions of how to handle a work/family/study balance arise and it is hard to look around for others who are going through the same experience. This or next year are probably the last year that I would think about presenting. Maybe it gets easier over time, but a technical presentation with code examples etc takes a lot of time to put together especially double checking everything to make sure the information is correct and best practice.

    Encouraging presentations at usergroups is definitely a great idea. I would be curious what the ratios are like at the usergroups compared to conferences compared to speakers.

    sorry no major perls of wisdom, but I thought I would add my rambling thoughts to the thread.
  • Commented on 03-09-2009 at 5:24 PM
    This is an excellent topic that seems to have started a few great ideas in the discussion. I have been to CFUnited for the past 3 years and I've only been in one session with a female speaker. Further, like Michele, I've also noticed a lack of diversity among speakers, which is certainly not reflective of the larger community. There are plenty of both women and ethnic minority members of the CF community. I agree with many that the fear factor may play a large part in the lack of submissions by women and minorities. The "CF Celebrity" factor Michele mentioned is one reason I've never even considered the idea. I think if a concerted effort could be made to encourage new speakers that would be a great. Many of us sit in a cube all day in front of a computer so our communication skills are not always the best. Maybe a series about making technical presentations might be of some use. I think t he user groups are likely the best place to start for such an effort.

    Thanks Ray for raising the issue.
  • Commented on 03-11-2009 at 8:56 AM
    I think Carly has a great point about women starting families and stepping back from their professional careers. I know several previous speakers who are no longer active. Also, most female CF developers I've worked with treated it as a job, as opposed to a career and a passion. I happen to not have kids, but also a husband who is very supportive of my involvement and sometimes prods me to be more involved in the community. I am lucky that he gets it.

    I also want to debunk the theory that only extroverts like to speak. I love speaking at conferences, and I am 100% introverted. I've taken the Myers-Briggs test 3 times - most recently a few weeks ago - and each type I type 100% introverted, which surprises a lot of people. Introverted does not mean shy. It means I gain my strength and energy from being alone or with those close to me and I get drained from being in large groups and being on all the time. Doesn't mean I don't like it, it just means that I need to recharge after public events. Which is why you don't see me at more.

    I'm working on that, though...

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