Friday, April 17, 2015

Conferences and women of merit

What I want to say about conferences in general and without women keynoters in particular does not fit in a tweet. I'm posting my points after a long consideration of whether I really want to say anything about this. With my share of pondering, offloading what is on my mind seems necessary.

You might know what I'm talking about: EuroSTAR 2015. Choosing keynotes based on merit. And end result is that there's no women.

Should testing conferences care about women?

A few weeks ago, a post in my Facebook feed piqued my attention enough so that I read it. The next day, I heard a podcast about the same story. It was a story about a 12-year old girl who realised that in games she loves playing, there were no characters that look like her. She did her research in a particular game genre to learn that 15 % of games had female characters for free and even with money, only 46 % would offer female characters. Her message was published in Washington post, and her message is very powerful.
"These biases affect young girls like me," wrote Madeline Messer. "The lack of girl characters implies that girls are not equal to boys and they don't deserve characters that look like them. I am a girl; I prefer being a girl in these games. I do not want to pay to be a girl."
I work in testing. I love testing. And testing as a field has lots of women - more than programming. In communities I facilitate, there's easily more women than men. In testing conferences in Finland, the same applies. I have a male friend, who opens introductory testing talks at universities on why should you join the field of testing with a half-serious joke: it's the community where you actually get to meet women, even be surrounded by women.

When Lisa Crispin pointed out publicly what many of us thought on lack of women in keynotes in EuroSTAR 2015, I was disappointed. It's like I, at the age of 40, need to have the same realisation Madeline had: there's no role models for me.

These biases affect women like me. The lack of women keynotes implies that women are not equal to men and they don't deserve the keynotes by people who look like them. I'm a woman; I prefer women keynoters in these conferences as my role models. A 12-year old girl can inspire a 40-year old woman. And the young women joining tech in masses with future generations need to come to a community where they are not an abnormality.

Saying there's other minorities ignored seems to be missing the point. Women in testing are not a minority. Women in conferences as speakers and participants, particularly in EuroSTAR, may be a minority. Perhaps lack of models has something to do with that too?

Where's the merit, really?

The responses of programme chairs from 2014 (Paul Gerrard and 2015 (Ruud Teunissen) seemed a bit odd from my perspective. Having been in EuroSTAR program committee with Michael Bolton as the chairman in 2013, there's a bit of an insight available what might happen in Galway when the programme is being built.  The part that mostly ended up being my focus was that the committee chooses on merit and if women are not on the program, it's implied that it's on lack of merit as well as not submitting.

As for my experience, keynotes are invited talks (paid for with an honorarium). Ruud mentions in his blog post he denied everyone who contacted him personally about keynote the honour. Choosing from the track submissions isn't something that happens every year. It might have happened this year. It did not happen in 2013.

This leaves me wondering: really, in the field of testing and ideas inspiring testing in practice as the EuroSTAR theme, there's no women of merit to invite? Fortunately there's the relative rule (thanks Michael Bolton for this!), and we can always add the silent "that I'm aware of or would care about" that we always add to statements like this. Merit, just like quality, is relative. An unrepresentative program committee would have hard time representing all views of merit with our significant research work in the community.

It's not hard to find both men and women to talk to about testing, to share experiences, to learn from one another. For me, it's sometimes hard to find the men to do talks, since I seem to be biased into chatting up every woman I find to learn what they could talk about that I could learn from. I do the same for men, if time permits. I would claim on average I strike a balance of  genders when inviting. I can easily list 100 worthy women to hear in EuroSTAR keynotes, and there's great women in the topics that the current program lists as themes in keynotes. Were they really equally considered? Why is admitting personal bias so hard on this?

I can list great women, because I actively look for role models that are like me. And I know many women who find gender more relevant than I do in finding their role models.

Pamela Gay in one of her astronomycasts  (there's a woman to admire!) shares a story about achievements and bias in assessing. For an achievement that a man has always been offered tenure, a woman gets assessments implying she isn't worthy as she does not walk on water. Are we really assessed on the same criteria? Or are women actually expected to be just a little better to even be considered on the lists that the male-only committees make on potential keynotes?

Merit in keynoting is two things

I view merit for speaking as a keynote as a combination of two things.

  1. Presentation skills

    There's the presentation skills and experience. And I find it natural, that a native English-speaker gets favored on that. It's wonderful when the language skill is well versed in doing the talk. EuroSTAR has a LOT of native english-speaker keynotes with emphasis on USA and Canada (not Europe) and UK and rest of Europe is underrepresented, it would seem. But it does create the idea that great testing might not happen around Europe. I've really appreciated Jurgen Appelo for creating the vision for ALE (Agile Lean Europe) to show that we do great stuff also around Europe and would love to see something similar for testing.

    There's a number of very educating, well presented and fun keynotes that you can't remember at all the next day. It's a pleasure to see someone who is well versed in presenting, but in a technical conference (testing, even business-facing, is technical), wouldn't we seek contents we can apply as inspiration for our work? They could be from anywhere in the world, but for EuroSTAR, you might want to expect Europe to be heavily represented too.
  2. Relevant content

    Since we all have our unique experiences, stories to share and ideas on how to put those together for a talk, I would argue that everyone I have met had unique and relevant content. Your experiences and my experiences will be different.

    Some might have content that is more fine-tuned and polished, collected over longer periods of time. Some might have experiences that are particularly inspiring and motivating. But as far as I can see it, it's arrogant to claim that the stuff that made it in the program would be with most content merit out of all opportunities in the world. You might just not have looked around. For the EuroSTAR conference theme in particular, "Walking the talk", it might appear you are looking for experienced practitioners - and there's plenty of inspiring people with merit - women included - in that side of testing. 

Passing responsibility to submitters

Agreeably, probably any of the women I have in mind as great keynotes did not submit. I for sure did not submit. You could say that lack of women in keynoters is because we don't submit. But instead of passively waiting for submissions, there's also the reaching out and listening part a committee should do.

Submitting a proposal for a conference is hard work. I prepare the talk to do my submission and that is a relevant portion of time to use. In the last year, I've submitted to five international conferences and got accepted to six - that is, there was one that knows that in general I'm not submitting as I'm against the pay-to-speak work-for-free-without-reward ideas that often are embedded in conferences. I work for free in collaboration with conference organisers, to prune one out of my hundreds of possible talk ideas whenever they contact me. Hundreds of ideas is easy, when you work as hands-on, full time tester and have been around a little. Some conference organisers work with me on the perfect talk for them. I wish there was more of thats style, regardless of gender, as we waste a lot of energy into reviewing well-formatted ideas that get abandoned as they are not right for the conference and badly-formatted ideas that would be right but get rejected because the message does not come across as the foundation work was not yet done to expected level.

Relevant diversity of three aspects

There's three aspects of diversity that I invite focus on that EuroSTAR misses:

  • the population / profession gender balance - testing has a lot of women yet none of the keynotes looks like me. 
  • the European balance - UK is not the only European country and US/Canada are overrepresented as we don't do our research in Europe
  • the product company vs. testing service company balance - I'd like to hear more from companies that need to do testing, but that don't have a business incentive to make that particularly visible

Out of these three aspects of diversity I really miss one. I've not gone to a single EuroSTAR where I did not speak at or program committee at. Having been to three or four, I know that out of all the conferences I've been to, EuroSTAR has been giving me the least value. Meeting other participants is great, the masses in large conference have brilliant minds. But the sessions have not been worth the time and money invested. Too many sales-style talks, which I attribute for the lack of diversity in people in product companies (not selling testing).  It would be a much harder case to make that I would pay to speak when my company isn't getting sales-related visibility from that, as testers are not my company's audience. And Pay-to-speak is the EuroSTAR model. So you might want to consider taking your submitting time and your conference money where the model is fair for speakers and does not drive sales-oriented contents. Try TestBash, Agile Testing Days or BTD Conference, just to mention few, for conferences that do not build their business on people who have to pay to speak.

Inspired by Madeline, the 12-year old, I might need to add the gender balance on my list of reasons of not going to EuroSTAR. I want to see hope that I could one day stand on that keynote podium. If none of the other brilliant women have the merit, why would I believe I should? Keynotes are invited, not suggested for most of it.