Sunday, April 17, 2016

Women in testing conferences

I've been around conferences a while. A little over a year ago in one of the conferences, I had a chat with one of the DEWTs (a peer conference in Netherlands) and expressed my interest in joining. I don't remember the exact response, but I remember my feeling: the remark on why I would be included was that they needed more women. Not more awesome people, but women. It turned into a laugh as these things usually do, but the feeling remained.

When I then got an email inviting me, I was happy and joined. I enjoyed the conference. I met some awesome people there, and the new people I added on my list of people to appreciate were mostly women. The men I already knew and the new men did not get through my limited bandwidth.

Late in the night, I remember hoping more people would talk testing. Instead, the discussions I ended up in were either about beer (I'm amazed how much there is to say about beers and I learned a lot even if I'm not particularly into the subject) or board games. My warmest memories are about talking on changing the world of testing with one of the DEWT fellows who I felt extended out of his usual circles to keep me company. Most of the time I felt alone in a crowd. And I was invited once only, for next ones I could see the same men there but know that I was excluded for lack of space. New women (and men) occupied that space, which is great. The spaces are limited.

I have social awkwardness around small talk (non-testing talk). In the last few years, I've found a perfect way for me to work through my social awkwardness. I go and talk to people about what they are into in testing, and find out if they would be interested in speaking in public. And a lot of people are, after I get to a point of sharing my honest excitement of something we've just discussed. I can do that because I have perspective of what is special and everyone has something special they could share.

Recently, I've been counting numbers. At AATC (Agile Alliance Technical Conference), I can easily remember meeting 10+ new women (including  the amazing Laurie Williams - highlight of my conference was to teach her about strong-style pairing she then mentioned in her talk on pair programming) and 3 new men. And quite an even distribution of old friends in both genders.

It seems this happens to me a lot. I go to a conference, and I come back with a list of names, primarily women. I'm biased, I know. It's easier to approach a lone stranger who is my gender. It's not active decision, it just happens. So when I organize conferences and need to name speakers, I have to work not to create 90 % female speakers rosters.

This experience makes me think that the same might happen the other way around. That the men naturally get to meet more men. And that when the bandwidth is limited, it would require a lot of effort to go talk to the women. And if the men tried this, who knows who would take that as an unwanted advance.

I also help women submit to conferences. I'm proud to say that there are 7 women on AgileTD list that are somehow connected to me. Some I encouraged to reuse their old talks (you'd be amazed it took me 14 years to learn I can and SHOULD reuse my talks instead of always writing a new one - a lot of women submit only new talks). Some I helped write their abstracts, listening to their stories of excitement they could not quite get on paper. Some I asked to share their stories, knowing they had one. Some I reminded on the fact that the conference pays for travel. I even suggested organizing a scholarship to compensate for time away from work (got declined, that was not an issue this time). Some I reminded that they can submit now and decide later if they will want to go, if they get accepted, knowing they are just afraid of the no and postponing your decision helps with that.

When the conference organizers say "We've tried everything" they mean "We haven't actively left women out and even reached out to a few". Let me show you a few things the recent people who did "everything" did not do:

  • They did not invite me. I have no idea which other women that could have joined they excluded. Not only did they not invite me, they made me aware of the event only through "we had no women" messaging. Also, inviting once does not really count when others get to be regulars. 
  • They did not ask me or Lisa Crispin for our extensive lists of amazing women around the world
  • They did not ask Speak Easy for their contacts
  • They did not spend 5 years in conferences meeting primarily women they could encourage, invite or promote
There's a few special aspects to women in testing conferences that are hard to express over twitter:
  1. Speaking about lack of women makes this worse. It makes every woman a representative of their gender, over being a representative of personal awesomeness. 
  2. Women group up so that they don't have to represent their gender. There is a reason why some IT work places have loads of women whereas others have none. It's safer in a group. 
  3. Peer conferences with their debate culture (let's attack your ideas) is more often a turn-off for women. Why would I volunteer to be attacked just because that's a mechanism the men in the field found useful. I speak for dialog culture, the idea that we'd actively build a safe environment to talk about ideas over attacking them so that only strongest survive. The stories from past peer conferences where people felt attacked (!!) aren't helping. 
  4. The "women and weekends can't be a problem, men have families too" feels ridiculous. The families where the work distribution (especially the meta work - organizing the work) are rare. I'm one of the lucky women who only feel extreme guilt leaving for weekends, I still get to go. Many don't get the chance. 
An average woman at conferences (or in IT in general) is better than an average man. They all feel they need to represent their gender. They get heavily filtered just from that. Helping the women get over all the obstacles they will face when they decide to speak in public is a support effort. More women helps. And allowing places for women isn't going to make your conferences worse.

An added note of someone who does well on this: James Lyndsay with LEWT. I was at LEWT#1. I've been invited to every single one since. I've only made it twice. But I feel I'm a LEWT. First come, first served. With enough women to never end up as a representative of my gender.