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?