garann means > totes profesh

a defunct web development blog

ladies, speaking

Sun, 17 Jun 2012 00:00:12 +0000

Between TXJS, which happened this week, and, it's a good time to feel optimistic about women speaking at dev conferences. TXJS had something like six women speak out of sixteen speakers, which is a more impressive ratio than any other conference I've been to, and is trying to collect ways to make that a more common occurrence. Not too shabby, web developers. It seemed like a good time to reflect on the difference female speakers make, and maybe a little bit about how a female speaker might differ from a male one.

Obviously this is just my own observation and YMMV and all that, but seeing women speak is a big thing for me. And TXJS this year made me aware that's it's not only seeing women speak. Seeing them speak about their own projects and their motivations for their code makes me feel like open source is something I can do. That might sound disingenuous coming from someone who has participated a little bit in open source and has some of her own very small projects, but I am 100% serious about it and it was 100% needed. Watching women discuss projects that aren't necessarily the biggest deal on github or used by everyone, but are nonetheless rigorous, important, and awesome made me feel like I can do those kinds of things too. I'd worry about leaning too far toward sexism in postulating as to why, but it's different than seeing men do the same thing, and not just because I shared a gender with these speakers.

Actually, fuck it, let's go ahead and postulate. While individual women are obviously as different as individual men, we do talk about how companies and industries can benefit from a more "feminine" way of conducting themselves. This means values that we associate with women and expect to see rewarded more in girls than in boys. Things like modesty, sharing credit, listening well and talking only when there's something important to say, and sublimating our competitive drives when it's to the benefit of a larger group. Things that we consider feminine traits are, broadly, things that place groups before individuals.

That's what was so inspiring about these talks I saw. These women needed to solve real problems, so they quietly stepped up and filled that role of project maintainer when they created these projects. On larger projects, that role is almost always a man. Not only are these women capable of being brilliant developers (hopefully no one really needs proof of that anymore), but they're capable of doing things women are often raised to leave to the boys. I was also struck by the way they spoke about their code, though. There was so little hyperbole, no sweeping dogma or expectations that the audience would automatically see why these projects were so cool. They carefully explained, and focused on the technical aspects. I can't really explain it perfectly. It felt different. More academic. Less like someone was selling me something. Certainly I've seen men talk about their work this way, as well, but not very many. What would be really amazing would be if these speakers had inspired not just another woman with their approach to development and open source, but the men in the audience, as well.

With all that said, I found one thing wanting, and that was the technical nitty-gritty. While I loved seeing these women defend their work and think that happens in our communities all too rarely, I also wanted to see the code. I wanted them to scare me with their brilliance, and wow me with their code, and talk about how the use of this loop here instead of this switch there made all the difference in the world.

I know one of the things TXJS did to get so many ladies on stage was to invite less experienced speakers. That's crucial for seeing more female speakers and changing gender diversity in general, because Rebecca Murphey and Lea Verou can't be everywhere at once. I hope to see more of this, but I hope that conferences will coach these greener speakers, as well. It would be wonderful for conferences to send out a detailed sketch of their audience, even if it's just the organizers' best guess. (This would probably help female attendees feel more comfortable, too.) I think knowing that there will be people in the audience who've been to ten or more JavaScript conferences, for example, would make me feel more comfortable showing tons and tons of code, whereas if I thought the audience was likely to have only 1-2 years experience I'd want to talk more generally and limit the amount of code I showed. This only came up for me because I was dying to see these ladies' code and I think last year when I spoke at TXJS I made a mistake in speaking too generally because I'd attended the conference as a serious-JS-n00b the year before. I can see how that cycle might kind of perpetuate itself without intervention from the organizers to get people to promote content at a certain level of detail. Standard disclaimer about having never organized a conference, though.

I hope people feel that coaching is worthwhile. Speaking from personal experience, it can be difficult to find the confidence to speak about something you're still learning yourself, and even more difficult to feel like your own work is interesting. Knowing not just what to submit or prepare talks on, but what aspects to discuss and who to target the content to could potentially make a huge difference in getting new women speakers onto conference stages. Or maybe not. But bravo to the organizers of TXJS and all their speakers (male and female), and to the folks behind I hope these are signs of more good things to come.