Women, Tech Conferences and the BullSh!t Surrounding It

Damn it. I try so hard these days to resist doing things that don't make me money. I do. But sometimes I make an exception and today is going to be one of those days.

Today Debra Mastaler tweeted a link to an article in The Atlantic about the latest up in arms cause in the tech industry – the “bias” against women speakers at tech related conferences.

For the record, I love Debra Mastaler. She's been on SEO conference panels since before there were dozens upon dozens of conferences surrounding the topic and well before anyone started insisting that “more women” be on them. She made the cut because she was – and is – extremely talented at what she does. I admit I am surprised she backs the premise of the above article. But, I guess there had to be something we'd disagree on after nearly a decade of harmony in opinions.

The newest target under attack is the Edge Conference. At the time that I am writing this, 22 of the 23 speakers are male (the one female speaker had yet to submit a photo, so if you click through to The Atlantic's article, you won't see her in the screen grab). The article suggests to all men who aren't “women haters” (my summation, not a quote in the article) that they should refuse to speak on conference panels in the tech industry unless at least one woman is on the panel with them.

Are you freaking kidding me?

We see what we want to see

Of course, some people look at the lineup and immediately assume highly talented women are being “excluded.” Of course, they don't know that for a fact. For all they know, 95% of speaker pitches came from men and thus why they ended up with a 95% male speaker line up once they whittled down the list to the best pitches.

But let's say a larger percentage of the pitches came from women. Then people are also assuming that of the pitches that came from women, 100% of them were awesome pitches that organizers passed up solely because the presenter would be wearing a bra.

The Edge Conference organizers tweeted at Matt Andrews, a Guardian web developer who wrote the (non-Atlantic) post linked above, attacking the lineup:

“Inexcusable is pretty strong. I don't feel need to defend this, but am happy with our process.”

And Andrews was quoted as responding with:

“I don't know what their selection process was, but if it was me organising it, I would explicitly not be satisfied with a process that resulted in 100% male speakers. I would have stopped once we'd reached, say, 17 male out of 22 possible speakers (being pretty conservative, I think) and insisted that the remaining five (a cool 22% female representation) would have to be women.”

All I could do was shake my head. Google is sending eight representatives to this conference. Why is no one asking Google why it didn't insist on sending a certain % of female representatives instead?

Is this really empowering women? Or marginalizing their achievements?

So – assuming that Edge Conference took what they felt were the best presentations for their audience (not taking gender into account at all) – we expect them to cut four “better” presentations to simply “put more women on the panels.”

Not only that, but the one woman who made whatever the cut was based on her talents and merits would then be accompanied by four other women who are there “for the sake of including women” – which in turn, to me – makes it look like she is only on a panel to fulfill the “women quota” rather than the actuality – that the organizers thought her pitch kicked ass enough to make the cut.

Years and years ago, Danny Sullivan used to have several blogrolls when he first launched Search Engine Land. One of those blogrolls was (lovingly) called “Old Farts” – meaning people (about 14 or so) who weren't associated with agencies (at that time) and had been around the block a time or two whose blogs he thought were worth reading. I was the only female on that list when it first debuted.

At a conference shortly after a woman was complaining about that blogroll (seriously) saying how it needed more women on it. I took offense to that. It's well known that Danny has long had women speakers at his conferences and as columnists on his site – he's far from “sexist.” I earned my way onto that list. And here is someone telling me people who didn't should be added, so I wasn't the lone female on it?

In three words? That's some bullshit.

Let's look at a non-tech example. My friend Amanda (who is in a “tech” career) is a graduate of the Citadel. For those who don't know, the Citadel is the toughest military college in the United States. It was also an all-male school until 1996 when its first female student won a legal battle with the school to be allowed in. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that the formerly all-male college would need to change its admissions policies to accept women.

But they didn't require a percentage. The courts merely said they had to let qualified female applicants in. Aside from separated living quarters, there were no special rules made for those female applicants at that time either. For instance, if a woman wanted in, they were going to have to get the standard issue buzz cut, same as their male counterparts.

Amanda entered the Citadel in 1999. There was one woman in the Senior Class at the time she entered as a Freshman. She entered with 30+ other female cadets. When she graduated in 2003, she was one of 14 women who did so. In short, 4% of the Citadel's 2003 graduating class were women. And Amanda busted her ass to be one of them…

Amanda Repelling

Can you imagine if the Citadel were required to ensure 20% of their graduating classes were female? People might look at Amanda and wonder – did she have what it took, or was she merely allowed to graduate to fulfill a quota?

How would that be fair to Amanda, who'd earned her walk across that stage? And are we suggesting that her massive achievement be downgraded to the possibility of being speculated as nothing more than “quota fulfillment”?

Where does it end?

So here we are. Women should get special consideration – and a forced percentage of inclusion on conference panels – according to the articles above (however, it's ok that BlogHer currently only has one male speaker – but I digress). So where does it end?

(I know Edge Conference is in London, but my examples below are based on US numbers and conditions because I'm American, and we hear this same argument regarding US conferences all the time.)

Once we add five women, are we sure that one of them is a single mom? We wouldn't want to leave out that demographic and have people assume the only women who can make a conference panel are single ones without kids or ones with partners at home to lessen their load.

There's also no African Americans on the Edge Conference's roster. I don't see any people of (obvious) Hispanic descent. Why is no one up in arms over that?

Unless someone looks really, really good for their age, there's also no one 55 or above representing senior citizens. Does this mean it's high time that the AARP get involved to ensure adequate representation in tech for their community?

Let's not discount looks either. Of those who have been assigned to speak on the conference panels, are all of them good looking? We need to ensure people don't think that's the only reason they're on the panel. Are we sure we've included a few people that are less attractive? Should we require headshots to be submitted before speaker approval?

Do we have anyone who is obese on the panels? We need to ensure that the overweight population is represented – after all, almost 36% of people in the United States are obese. Surely that same percentage is represented in speaker pitches.

Another 10% of people between the age of 18-64 in the United States have a disability. Are we adequately reflecting that in our choice of conference speakers?

Be prepared to see a checkbox on the speaker pitch forms eventually asking you about your sexual orientation too. We need to make sure members of the GLBT community are included on each panel as well – and we're going to need at least one from each of the four that acronym represents.

Do we not see the problem here?

No one should ever be denied a speaking slot BASED on any of the above. ABSOLUTELY NOT.

But conference organizers shouldn't have to pick speakers to fulfill an “equality quota” either. They should pick the best speakers, for their specific event and topics, that successfully get people to shell out their money to attend.

Conferences are a BUSINESS. I highly doubt that most conference organizers care if you are a purple asexual hermaphrodite, providing the quality of your presentation puts butts in their seats.

When I attend a conference, I'm not there to see a proverbial rendition of We are the World. I'm there to learn. I'm there to be inspired. I'm there to increase my bottom line. The speakers I want on stage are the best possible choices to fulfill those needs. Period. And I certainly don't want to be sitting in the audience wondering who is there on merit and who is there to fulfill a quota.

Do you want to see more women showcased in the tech space?

Asking men to partake in reverse gender bias isn't going to do that in a way that empowers anyone. But there are plenty of things that you can do to help achieve that result.

  • See a conference panel you think a woman you know would rock? Let her know about it and encourage her to pitch – and pitch well.
  • Know of amazing female speakers? Make your favorite conferences aware of them and tell them why being able to see them speak would be a draw to you purchasing a ticket to their conference.
  • Stop supporting publications that attempt to convince the female tech and business population that they're inferior to men.
  • See tech industry professionals being showcased on a blog somewhere? Write in and suggest some kickass women that would also make great interviewees.
  • Have a daughter? Encourage her to enter the space. Until females represent an equal number of the population in this industry, they'll never represent an equal number of those showcased within it.
  • Are you a woman in the tech space? Want recognition as a powerhouse? Want to speak on conference panels? THEN GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

It's up to you to stop letting them.


Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is a veteran digital marketer and SEO consultant. She is also a serial entrepreneur. You can find out more about her entrepreneurial efforts here. Rae is most active on Twitter.


  1. Melissa Fach on April 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Rae, I totally get your points. I love speaking, but can’t go to all these conferences all the time because I am a mom of a kid with severe ADD. He needs more help than the average kid to get school and home work one and I just can’t expect family members to take on that much so I can leave all the time.

    Also, I have so much work that when I do leave for a conference and come back I spend a couple of weeks catching up. For me personally going to and speaking at conferences can be very difficult for these reasons, so I do not pitch. I can’t be the only mom with these types of issues.

    I see a lot of amazing women speakers all the time. I just don’t see this “bias” against them that others see at the conferences that I am interested in. What I have seen for a long time is a ton of respect for the women that do speak at the conferences by everyone involved.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:05 pm

      I definitely think your comments are an aspect of why more women might not pitch to speak. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever been turned down for “being female” and I sure as hell hope I was never asked to speak because I was either.

    • Oli on April 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

      I think that your point should have been that you are not the only person with those issues.

      • John on April 16, 2013 at 8:56 am

        Agreed. What Melissa describes is something every conference speaker deals with, male and female alike. A lot of the male conference speakers are fathers, and they have the same constraints on their time. I have side projects that get neglected when I go to speak, and sometimes my client work has to get done faster or I have to plan out further ahead and take less on.

        It’s a lesson all conference speakers need to learn – balance. I’m learning it’s almost impossible to speak and do client work and run a team and blog and have a life outside of work.

        • Andrew Fairley on May 15, 2013 at 9:21 am

          No offence John, but what you said flies in the face of all academic research done on gender equality in business for the last 50 years.

          ” A lot of the male conference speakers are fathers, and they have the same constraints on their time.”
          – Really? Then why is it that women are far less likely to return to the workforce after having children? Why is it that women who are mothers are less likely to achieve senior positions in companies? Why is it that women still tend to account for the vast majority of primary caregiving? Why is it that studies show again and again that even in families where both parents have full-time jobs, the woman tends to be responsible for more of the home-based childcare and household duties?

          Please note, these studies show trends and tendencies. I don’t know your situation, maybe you are a father and you are responsible for more childcare and household duties than your partner. That’s fine. However, what we consistently see is that women are more likely to have to make sacrifices to meet the ‘life’ side of the work-life balance. It’s all very well saying that people need to learn ‘balance’, but the gender roles in most of Western society are unbalanced, with the woman expected to take on more of the childcare and housework than men. Even a quick glance at advertising tells us this; if the product being advertised is a household item (cleaning fluid, domestic appliances etc.), you can almost guarantee it will be a woman using it in the advert. This is a gender bias at a systemic level, which does have an effect on how we live our day-to-day lives.

          Assuming that the fault lies with women (i.e., women need to make more of an effort to submit talks, women need to get better at balancing their professional and home lives) is part of the problem. These biases exist, and pretending they don’t won’t solve anything. Mechanisms need to be put in place to help with this; for example, women (or other minority groups) should be actively encouraged to submit talks whilst still being judged on a blind basis (because I agree that a straight-up quota system isn’t the answer), and there needs to be support to meet the work-life balance – for example having child-care facilities at conferences (which would also benefit male attendees!).

  2. Vikki on April 15, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Thank you! I had all of this coursing through my brain as I read the article. I think this type of thing is actually working against women in tech who are looking for the same simple respect and courtesy shown to anyone in any arena. Let’s quit throwing shovels and backhoes into the supposed gender gap.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      Vikki – that’s all I’m looking for as well. I’d never want to see someone refused based on sex or any other potential difference from the majority – but I’m not looking to assume that every conference with a majority male speaker list did so purposely.

    • GF on April 15, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      Also, It’s worth noting that many guys in the tech industry are equal opportunity douche bags. If you offend their perceived intelligence they will be condescending no matter if you are male or female.

      Be mindful not to read that as sexism.

      Personally I just live by the assumption that sexism in the tech industry doesn’t exist, do my thing and simply logically break down any arguments that my infer that I’m not as knowledgeable as a female.

      Ultimately this isn’t a war of sexes it’s a war of knowledge. You exchange this knowledge for the respect of your peers.

      • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 6:53 am

        Absolutely GF – an ego is an ego – and I’ve seen a lot of them. I’ve definitely come up against folks that assume I “know less” because I’m female. And they quickly find out they’re wrong. And if they don’t, I sure as hell don’t let their opinion roll over into being my opinion – if that makes sense. :)

      • JQ on April 16, 2013 at 1:58 pm

        Fantastic discussion going on here. GF, mind if i use “equal opportunity douche bag” in the future?

  3. Loretta on April 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I personally would never want to be offered or hired onto a job, or accepted as a volunteer, based solely on the fact that I am a woman. And if I were to do a thing and then find out after the fact that I only got to do that thing because I was a woman, I would be disappointed, it wouldn’t feel like an achievement anymore.

    If a man is more qualified than the other applicants for the task at hand then he should do it. If a woman is more qualified for the task at hand then she should do it. The most qualified person regardless of race, sex, religion, etc, etc…. Sometimes I feel like our society is going backwards in the equality battles, people are trying so hard to force the equality lines that they’re actually having the opposite effect that they’re trying for.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

      Agree Retta – a while back, Affiliate Summit did a panel on Women in Affiliate Marketing. Obviously, the speakers were all women. I said on that panel that one of the biggest obstacles women feeling like they were facing the gender gap needed to address was allowing themselves to be “accepting of it”. I don’t feel like my gender has ever been a hindrance in my career.

  4. Rob on April 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Amazing post, Rae. In my opinion I think you nailed it.

    People should stop confusing “shouldn’t be denied because of” with “should be forced on because of”. Shouldn’t have to “take a step down” in terms of quality of a speaker due to filling a quota.

    Well said.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      THIS > [confusing “shouldn’t be denied because of” with “should be forced on because of”] < #AMEN

  5. Michelle Robbins on April 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

    I think there’s a middle ground to be met here. I agree completely that no one should be chosen for anything based solely on their ethnicity, gender, or any other demographic factor. People need to earn their jobs, slots, accolades, what have you. In all cases.

    But you’re not considering the very subtle impact that bias (cultural, educational, socioeconomic…there are many to choose from) plays in decision making.

    I don’t want to ever be given something ‘because I’m a woman’ but I very much understand that it’s not simply a matter of having a given set of credentials or just going after opportunities. You need only look at the recent treatment of *exceptional* women in high profile positions – how every article of clothing they choose and every decision they make is scrutinized to a point unheard of for men (Hillary’s ‘cankles’ and Marissa’s decision about remote workers). I don’t think their knowledge or abilities can be disputed, and yet they’re still having to deal with nonsense based in bias.

    So while it’s a very bad idea and helps no one to have a quota based system, ignoring that there are very real prejudices out there, and not speaking up about them, does nothing to move the needle forward either.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 11:23 am

      Michelle – to be clear, I’m definitely not claiming that there isn’t sexism or offensive behavior towards women happening in our industry (or any other industry for that matter). My issue is that quotas, requirements and reverse sexism does nothing to empower or validate women in this industry (I believe it to have the opposite effect) – or serve conference attendees shelling out their hard earned cash to attend an event. :)

      • Michelle Robbins on April 15, 2013 at 11:32 am

        Totally agree :) I just see the problem as so subtle – people programming these events aren’t consciously thinking “let’s exclude women!!” but their own biases (and I’m talking about both men and women programming events) are probably impacting how they select speakers to some degree. It would be much more productive to address the problem as one of societal bias – not ‘tech industry sexism’ – because I agree with you, it is not helping. It’s more polarizing than helpful – the way it is being discussed and the many overreactions on all sides.

        But discussion does need to happen. Change doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it’s likely that the discussions, articles, etc. are encouraging people to consider their own biases and choices, on both sides. More than anything, I hope that those posts and ones like your own encourage women to speak up and step up – that’s what is ultimately going to bring about the most change.

        • Corey Shelton on April 16, 2013 at 7:47 am


          I think for the most part, I agree with Rae’s point that seeking quotas does damage to women that would have been invited to speak without a quota by calling their credentials into question. To your point, I think that part of the challenge with this circumstance isn’t that people are merely biased, but that the sexism–or discrimination–that exists is structural.

          At the collegiate level, men are simply more likely to pursue work in tech. There is nothing to suggest that men are better suited for this work in any way, and my personal experience has been that women in this field have produced exceptional work and are extremely smart.

          I do realize that it’s important to discuss discrimination–and even perceived discrimination, but I feel that the notable discussions that have surfaced recently haven’t been productive because they are accusatory. This is understandable, of course, because being featured at an event like this could present a substantial benefit to the careers of those invited to present.

          The most important place to address this inequality is, of course, structurally in education. When tech is more evenly populated at an educational level and feels more accessible to students of all genders and races, I suspect that the makeup of the workforce will be more balanced.

          • Michelle Robbins on April 16, 2013 at 11:36 am

            I completely agree Corey. In discussing bias, it’s with the eye that it is structural in all aspects of life, and you are right – the best place to address it is with education. Unfortunately, I met a woman a couple of weeks ago who, when trying to decide which major to declare at UCI about 10 years ago, met with an engineering professor who told her “I don’t even know why you’re here.” which had the effect of discouraging her to continue in engineering. Not because she didn’t think she could succeed in the field, but because she didn’t want to work within that system, that attitude.

            She’s happily a private investigator now, so I suppose it all worked out, but I hated hearing that it happened, as I actively work with an encourage young women to pursue careers in tech. Because you’re right, ultimately that is what will provide the greatest change.

    • Kris Roadruck on April 15, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      I was one of the people that harped on marissa for canning the remote worker option. I think you may need to consider the possibility (as was the case with me) that people bagging on that were bagging on it on its own merit and not because she is a woman. It was a bad call. If her name was Bruce and her bits where on the outside instead of the inside I would have still bagged on the decision. Anyone who doubts marissa’s ability because she is a woman isn’t paying attention. She’s clearly at the top of her game and can be matched against any guy for the same roles. That however doesnt excuse a bad decision and gender has absolutely zero to do with that. People get called on their shit regardless of gender.

      • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:03 am

        I had no idea the Marissa / Yahoo home workers was brought down to her being female. Silly. I agreed with her on that one, but I can see why a lot of people would have a differing opinion.

  6. Sarah Carling on April 15, 2013 at 11:25 am

    I love this article. I would hate to ever think that I got a space on a panel (or anything else for that matter) because I’m a woman. As soon as that happens everything I have achieved gets thrown into doubt. Did I only get the clients I got because they wanted to “prove” they weren’t sexist? What about jobs I’ve gotten too. Don’t pin my success on my gender on my behalf, because believe me if I ever thought I had been excluded because of my gender and there were a bunch of crap guys speaking and great women being turned down, I’m quite capable of making my own noise about it.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:13 pm

      Sarah – I agree. If a woman told me she was turned down as a speaker and said she was explicitly told it was due to her sex, I’d be the first person to loudly have her back. I just 1. am not going to make an assumption that being female in a heavily male industry is the reason I don’t get every opportunity I go for and 2. don’t ever want the accomplishments I’ve busted my ass to achieve thrown into doubt as “equality” vs. hard work.

      • Ann Burlingham on April 15, 2013 at 11:58 pm

        Really? You’d wait for the bias to be that explicit, and known to both the perpetrator and then excluded? No wonder you’re having a hard time seeing any sexism at all.

        • Ann Burlingham on April 16, 2013 at 12:05 am

          By the way, this bit from an article I saw the other day came into my mind, as I wondered if you have thought about why you are at these conferences and others aren’t:

          “Too many of us, the authors of this study included, have told ourselves and others that we just need to “suck it up,” just endure one more day, to keep our heads down and power through. Survival in field-based academic science can’t just be about who can put up with or witness abuse the longest – that is not an appropriate metric to measure who is the best at their science. ”

          From this:


          Something to mull. Is it really just the way that it is, that women have to just keep grinning and bearing it instead of having an expectation that their world and workplace should be working on being less sexist and otherwise oppressive? I expected better in the 1970s. Isn’t it time to ask, if you’re going to ask something, why the women on the inside need to set their pain levels high and keep their expectations low?

          • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 6:50 am

            Hey Ann – I’m speaking at these conferences because I’m good at what I do and have no issue with asking for or accepting recognition in regards to me being so. Once I spoke at a few conferences and organizers saw I resonated well with the audience as a speaker, they not only asked me back but other conferences started asking. The same way any man ends up on a conference panel, IMHO.

            “who can put up with or witness abuse” and “workplace should be working on being less sexist and otherwise oppressive”

            Now, and I suspect I’m going to have to refer to this comment later, so this is not aimed at you as a person, but is aimed at the kind of statements in the quotes above. NO WHERE in my initial post did I say that women (or any employee for that matter) should suck up workplace ABUSE. No where did I deny workplace sexism or say that women should suck up being oppressed in their workplace.

            As a matter of fact, I stayed very clear of discussing anything but women, speaking on tech conferences and how I feel forcing a % on inclusion (such as the one female speaker per panel requirement as the Atlantic article suggested) for women and how I feel it marginalizes the achievements of those who “did things” without it. And I did that very purposely – because they’re separate topics and issues. Saying if I don’t believe in quotas for female inclusion means that I do believe in sexism and workplace oppression is misguided at best.

            It’s like a politician trying to run a law through congress by wrapping up that law in a bill with a law everyone agrees with (like helping veterans get medical benefits) with something very not agreed upon (like raising taxes) and then when one party turns the neatly wrapped up bill down, the opposing members shout “The [party] don’t want to help our veterans!” It’s simply not true.

            The topic of my article was an individual topic and your comment refers to completely different ones. My two cents.

  7. IrishWonder on April 15, 2013 at 11:45 am

    I love you Rae! We rant the same rants almost simultaneously – I was saying stuff along exactly the same lines at the afterparty at BrightonSEO last Friday. Anne Kennedy suspects we are related – well I guess there must be something to it :)

    You are familiar with this one I am sure? http://conferencequotas.com/evaluate.html – taking the “equality” concept to absolute absurd.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 11:56 am

      LOL, no, hadn’t seen that site. :) I adore Anne – she is one of the women in our industry I commonly refer when the women in SEO debate comes up. She kicks ass, takes names and has for a long time. :)

  8. Joel on April 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    It’s tough for me to talk about this issue because no matter what you say you wind up polarizing people. I hear and agree with everything you’re saying – people go to a conference because they want the best possible speakers regardless of their genitalia.

    But then, as others have said, you question the selection process – is it an old boys’ club? Do we need to start having these grand expose’s where conferences reveal how many pitches they got from each gender relative to what was accepted?

    I don’t know how you enforce more equal splits of men/women WITHOUT putting in a quota.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      Agreed Joel – and I’m always open to respectfully different viewpoints (which yours definitely falls under).

      Re “is it an old boys’ club”… I’ve never had a problem landing panels and know many other women who speak in the tech industry as well. Even if organizers released the ratio of male to female pitches, that doesn’t mean that the quality of those pitches will be the same ratio (in either direction). To me, an easy way to (help) enforce it is with your wallet.

      I’m keynoting Affiliate Summit in August. If I found out that I was asked merely to “balance the gender” of the Keynote speakers (I’m the only female of the 3 keynotes) I’d very be insulted. But there’s no quota. No requirement. I know I was asked because the organizers think I’d do well with one and my keynote would be a benefit to their conference attendees. I’d never want “that feeling” taken away from myself or any other female speaker. My two cents. :)

      • Joel on April 15, 2013 at 12:34 pm

        Maybe I wasn’t clear in my response – I agree with you in that quota’s suck. But the question becomes – if not a quota, then what? How is a conference supposed to conduct itself in a way acceptable to everyone? That was more what I was driving at. If you had fair and balanced selection processes and still came away with mostly men, what exactly can you do to make that “okay” in the eyes of those rattling their sabres?

        It would suck to feel like you were chosen to fill a quota, I couldn’t agree more. It just all feels very catch 22 as people try to be politically correct.

        • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:39 pm

          Sorry Joel – I got you didn’t like quotas – I meant that it appeared you might see how they would be a potential solution to seeing more women represented at conferences.

          I don’t think the type of people who automatically assume a roster that is primarily made up of men is sexist can be convinced otherwise – unfortunately. I definitely don’t pretend to know the perfect “solution” so to speak – only that the “fibers of my being” tells me quotas aren’t it.

          My long winded way of saying, I agree – feels like a catch 22 situation.

    • Marcio on April 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      “I don’t know how you enforce more equal splits of men/women WITHOUT putting in a quota.”
      That’s because “enforce equal splits of men/women” is stupid (please, I’m not calling YOU stupid, just the excerpt). This need to happen naturally. Period.

      • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:05 am

        One commenter mentioned actively soliciting pitches from women in the industry – that’s the smartest idea I’ve heard thus far as a way to progress without force. I’ve talked to several conference organizers and they’ve all told me the pitches they receive are no where near “equal numbers” so to speak.

  9. Amanda Blum on April 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm


    well. mostly yes.

    Honestly, all very solid reasoning regarding quotas and I agree, quotas are bad juju. I think part of the problem lies in the way in which tech conferences solicit speakers. Frankly, the solicit. “hey! who wants to speak! submit a talk!” If instead you decided to just go after the best speakers and expertise, and invite them, you’d find a more diverse group naturally. The part where you have to actually submit is the pain point and why it’s dominated by men. I’m desperate for someone to test this theory.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:26 pm

      Amanda – Now, and I ask this being serious, not a smartass – if someone can’t take the effort to submit, wouldn’t you be nervous as to the kind of effort they’d put into their presentation? I’d love to hear your answer and your reasoning behind whatever it might be. :)

      • Amanda Blum on April 15, 2013 at 12:50 pm

        You’re assuming that the reason they’re not submitting is effort. I won’t rule that out, but I think there are basic differences between men and women and men are more apt to ask for recognition. Submitting a talk, submitting for an award, etc… these are asking for recognition.

        This is a philosophy I hear sometimes, even BY women, “if you’re not willing to ask for it, why should I give it to you” but its based on a faulty (IMHO) premise that its about willingness.

        • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm

          Sorry if I misinterpreted Amanda… when you said “The part where you have to actually submit is the pain point and why it’s dominated by men.” I thought you were saying that men submitted more and therefore got put on panels more (which I saw to be a logical result, thus my response) and that women didn’t want to go through the “pain” of submitting.

          “these are asking for recognition” – I absolutely am one of the women you’ll hear say that if someone wants recognition – they should 1. ask for it 2. work for it or 3. just be so awesome they can’t avoid it. To me, that’s like saying “Jill had a higher IQ then everyone else on the Dean’s List, but she doesn’t like taking tests and didn’t show up to take them as a result” and then wondering why Jill isn’t on the Dean’s List at the end of the year, even though she had a higher IQ than everyone else who did make the list.

          In short, you can’t win an event you don’t participate in.

          • Amanda Blum on April 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm

            Ok. For the sake of argument….

            if you routinely find that the people with the highest IQ are being left of the register recording who does the best in school and those people share a trait, then you would not assume there is something wrong with the people left off, but rather that perhaps there may be fault with the process to measurement.

            It comes down to whether you’re looking for “the best people at taking a test” or “the smartest people”. The people who submit talks are not the same as the best people to speak.

          • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 1:39 pm

            “The people who submit talks are not the same as the best people to speak.” I absolutely agree. But conference organizers aren’t mind readers or psychics either. That’s why I said if you see a conference lacking female representation, encourage some awesome women you know to pitch – or email the organizers and make suggestions. But asking them to find people making no attempt to BE found, to me, seems an odd request, if that makes sense.

          • Amanda Blum on April 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm

            No one is asking them to be mind readers or psychics. But as conference organizers, their responsibility is to go find the best speakers. Its not tough. They’re not hiding in a cave. There are blog posts and meetups and asking around. They’re not making no attempt to be found, they’re just not submitting talks.

          • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

            Well, I guess all we can do is agree to disagree – but thanks for sharing your viewpoint with me. :)

        • Vicky on April 15, 2013 at 8:16 pm

          To back up the discussion here, at least one other conference (a PyCon?) did a different way: they deliberately reached out to female groups for *submissions*. There was no guarantee that they’d get in, but the mere fact that there were far more females in the pool meant that some would get through on merit. I am of this opinion, the quota shouldn’t be on acceptances, but submissions (and making an effort to get the submissions).

          • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 6:56 am

            Vicky – that’s probably the best idea I’ve heard so far on the topic – it reminds me of the situation regarding Amanda and the Citadel.

  10. Marshall Stevenson on April 15, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    Now you must ensure that your comment ratio quota is also on side ;)

    In all seriousness, you nailed it perfectly. Why should one demographic get a reserved space. We’re busy pulling together a WordCamp here in Calgary and I can assure you that we’d love to get women speakers…alas, none have pitched yet. Not only that, but we’ve been looking for women speakers as well, not because of the quota or perception, but because we know there are awesome rock star women out there and we need them in the community.

    Long gone are the days of the old boys club in the tech world. We just need more of them to be outspoken like you Rae…well, maybe not AS outspoken, but ya know what I mean ;)

    • Rae Hoffman on April 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      Ha – lord help any industry if the majority of people in it – male or female – were as loud mouthed as me. ;-) That’s pretty much my take – I’d love to SEE more women speakers – of course! But I don’t think it should be required or that a conference should become the target of a lynch mob if their ratio isn’t “acceptable”. And who the hell would get to define what an “acceptable ratio” is? Good luck on the conference!

  11. Amanda on April 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    I wanted to weigh in on this because I could be thrown into a couple of the special categories. I’m a woman, I work in tech, and I also happen to be blind. So there’s the disability. And because of all this quota crap, I find myself in the position of wondering whether I was chosen for a position or a job because of my disability, because of my gender, or because the person doing the choosing really thought I was good at what I do and had something to offer. I would never suggest that we get rid of the ADA for instance. It’s because of the ADA that we’ve gotten a lot of the needed accommodations we have now. But the problem is, people see ADA, and they think hire a token disabled person, instead of looking at the ADA as guidelines for making things, actual things needed for work, accessible. And a huge part of this problem is the disabled community itself. the advocacy orgs do all the speaking, (at least in the blind community), and none of them can agree on anything and will even oppose something one of the other orgs is doing just because it’s the other org. So anyway, to get back around to the original topic of this post, I wanted to let you know this is very refreshing, because I sometimes wonder if women, (not all, but definitely some), aren’t making fixing the true problems more difficult by muddying the waters with things like quotas and stupid shit like that.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:07 am

      I see your point Amanda. No one should ever have to wonder if they earned an opportunity or were given it to fulfill a number. I have a bit of experience with the ADA (my oldest son was severely multiply handicapped before he passed). The laws requiring accessibility are important ones. The laws allowing everyone to compete – also very important. I just don’t agree with the ones – as you said – where people are handed things for the sake of fulfilling some quota.

  12. Ed on April 15, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    This is an excellent article and I think is spot on. We shouldn’t force the percentage if it’s just not there. Thanks for standing up for what you believe in.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:07 am

      Ed – thanks, I’ve never been known for being shy. ;-)

  13. Dave on April 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    No legitimately unbiased individual ever worries if they aren’t being unbiased enough. Preferential treatment is still discrimination.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:12 am

      I agree – I never look at the panel lineup the few times I’ve moderated a conference panel and think “we need another female” or “we should probably make the next panelist someone who is gay”. I look at 1. the merit of their presentation and 2. their ability to speak well and 3. their ability to draw ticket sales. That’s it.

  14. Mary Branscombe on April 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    What about the well-known fact that women don’t put themselves forward and conferences perpetuate the near-all-male slate by not doing the extra work of seeking out women to speak, so the status quo doesn’t change because women who don’t see women speaking at a conference are not encouraged to get out of their comfort zone and put themselves forward? In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need quotas; how about in the very unideal world we live in?

    I did my first degree at Oxford. I went to an all-women’s college, after my first-choice co-ed college didn’t offer me a place. I don’t believe that I was any less suited to Oxford than the men who got into that co-ed college – or the women who got into that co-ed college, except the college took something like 75% male 25% female applicants for that course in that year. The guaranteed places for women at the all-women’s college helped redress that balance. That had moved on a lot from earlier decades when admissions tutors at other colleges would say to the all-women’s college ‘this is a great applicant, but I already have my woman for the year; would you like her?’ What changed the minds of the originally all-male colleges? the smart women going to the all-women colleges. The balance has become closer to even in the decades since. A quota by any other name helped change the ratio to something much more equal.

    At this stage of the game, we need things that wouldn’t be needed in a world with a level playing field. There are plenty of amazingly smart women in tech; if a conference can’t make sure it’s getting them to present, the conference is doing it wrong. A quota would be a way of concentrating their mind to do it right – with no need to dumb down or drop standards or patronise the women who are already getting up on the stage.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:16 am

      “well-known fact that women don’t put themselves forward and conferences”

      Sorry, but I put that blame on the women who want to speak and don’t put themselves forward. But I also don’t believe in the every kid gets a trophy mentality. I feel like the above comment falls under that thinking. They didn’t try, but we want to give them something anyway.

      Respectfully, I do believe a “quota” calls into question to attendees if I’m on stage because I kick ass or because I’m filling a quota. I spoke at a conference last month where I was the only female on the panel. The conference didn’t have a quota. My presence was obviously because they wanted me on the panel. If there was a quota, I believe the assumption would alternately have been that I was only there to fill it.

  15. Zach on April 15, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Am I the only one who considers it sexist that many women automatically believe that the only possible reason that a panel such as this only has one women speaker was because of sexism?

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:17 am

      No, you’re not. :)

  16. Oli on April 15, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Great post, and I agree with you 100%. I honestly don’t see the gender divide anymore, and I definitely couldn’t name a company that would not hire the best employee because she was a woman.

    Now if person picking the speakers had turned down a speakers because they were a woman, that would be a completely different matter, but I doubt it was the case.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:18 am

      I’m not saying it never happens. I’m simply saying that the defacto reason a women was not placed on a panel is not “because she’s a woman” – which many seem to assume rather than taking into account the myriad of other reasons a woman (read, potential speaker) may not have been given a slot.

  17. Peter Griffiths on April 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Great post. I totally support women in tech or indeed in any profession they choose to pursue. But this isn’t even political correctness, it’s just rather sad.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:20 am

      I absolutely support women in tech as well. I do my best to help a lot of the young females that enter our specific branch of tech. But I don’t see telling them they’re inferior and how to “overcome” that as help. I tell them – if they’re talented – that they have the ability to go as far as they want – and as far as they work for.

  18. Matthias Bauer @moeffju on April 15, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    You make a number of good points, but you gloss over the structural problems (not only) in the tech field. Women are less likely to choose a technical profession, less likely to even submit proposals, and there is an undeniable bias in the selection process. One very simple solution to the last point is a blind selection process, where you replace submitter’s names with some hash or number. This ensures that your subconscious biases won’t effect who you select. Solving the other problems is harder and that’s a reason to reach out to women, although I agree that people shouldn’t be chosen for panels or link lists or anything simply based on their gender. Current societal structures do however make certain things harder for certain genders.

    (The analogy to LGBT does not hold IMO, because sexual orientation is not usually visibly noticeable. There might be subconscious or conscious discrimination against obese or handicapped people, however.)

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:24 am

      Matthias – I agree less women are in tech – thus why I said we should be encouraging our tech minded daughters to enter the space. :) I also agree there is an imbalance of male to female speakers. I feel no sympathy for those not on panels who didn’t even try to get on panels via submitting a pitch though.

      To me blind selection wouldn’t work because it fails to address one important point – can this person SPEAK WELL. Not every brilliant mind can articulate their brilliance into a presentation people want to watch on stage. Additionally, some speakers turn a speaking opportunity into a promotional opportunity. If I know they’re known for 1. being a “bad” speaker as far as pure speaking to a crowd is concerned or 2. being overly promotional then I absolutely don’t want to put them on a panel and force the audience to endure them.

      • Michelle Robbins on April 16, 2013 at 11:49 am

        I think blind submissions are an excellent solution. There was some other post somewhere that I commented on and linked to studies regarding the changes in makeup of most major symphonies once the auditions became ‘blind’ – pretty compelling research actually.

        To your other concerns Rae, about what blind submissions for speaking wouldn’t capture – they don’t anyway. Unless you’re dealing with a “known” speaker. And only dealing with “knowns” does nothing to bring new voices and give new people opportunities. I for one tire of seeing the same voices, the same presentations over and over. The last handful of our SMX events have featured some incredible new speakers that brought amazing information to our attendees. Everyone has their first speaking gig somewhere. The most important measure should be knowledge of topic ascertained through quality of the pitch. If selected, conference organizers can from that point further vet a speaker (if known to be bad, chuck them out).

        • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 8:04 am

          Michelle – when I have been in a position to pick pitches, I always check out information on people submitting that pitch. I’m not saying I need to see a video of them speak to say yes, but I want to see some of their work. I.e. What if the person submits a great pitch on WordPress optimization, which was edited for grammar well – and then I go to the potential speaker’s website and see they’re still using default permalinks on their own blog. To me, they’d be nixed as a potential speaker on that topic.

          Affiliate Summit has one of the more interesting pitch processes I’ve seen. First, speakers submit the pitches. Then, they crowdsource attendees (and potential attendees) through a public, registration required voting process. Then once the crowd has whittled down the list, an Advisory Board has some input on the final lineup from the crowdsource winners.

          I LOVE seeing new speakers. And your last conference definitely showcased a few great ones I hadn’t seen speak at a prior event. I just think not being able to get more information on a speaker to vet if they actually know what their talking about (like in my example above) could actually cause more problems then it fixes. Sadly, anyone can read a blog post somewhere and put together a kickass two paragraphs on the topic. But if someone pitches me to speak on “How to blow up your marketing efforts with Twitter” – I want a name to be able to research to see if they only have 100 followers themselves.

      • Matthias Bauer @moeffju on April 19, 2013 at 8:05 am

        You can still do a blind ranking and only then add the „who“ to the mix. The problem with looking at the speakers is that you can only confirm known good or known bad speakers. With most conferences, however, you will have a high number of submissions from people you know nothing about. And even people you know as „bad speakers“ from the past might have changed, or might simply be more comfortable giving a public talk about some other topic they haven’t talked about previously.

        Now that I think about it again, just leaving out the photo and full name of a potential speaker might be sufficient to push people’s subconscious biases away long enough for them to judge people based on their proposal. Once you actually read the abstract with less bias, it’s okay to click through to their twitter profiles and check if they actually have more than 100 followers, to stay within your example. But our subconscious biases are the hardest to get rid of.

  19. Mary-Anne Gross on April 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I’ve been a women in tech for 30 years and I love, love loved this post! The Eleanor Roosevelt quote at the end was spot on. I strongly believe that our own attitudes go a long way towards influencing how others perceive us and shaping our reality.

    Quotas and requirements are not the answer. They fuel resentment and reinforce bias in the minds where it already exists. I would never want a job or a client I didn’t get on my own merits.

    Being hesitant to ask for recognition isn’t an ingrained female trait – it’s a learned behavior. You can change your behavior. Self-esteem and the confidence to go after what you want and get it come from within. That’s the example we should be setting for our daughters.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:25 am

      Spot on Mary-Anne – my feelings exactly. :)

  20. Chris Yeh on April 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    One of the things I proposed after “Dongle-gate” was to apply the NFL’s Rooney Rule. There is a middle ground between doing nothing and imposing quotas:


    “The NFL has the Rooney Rule which was established in 2003. The rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching positions before deciding on a hire. At the time the rule was instituted, there were only 2 minority head coaches, and there had only been 5 more during the entire 83-year existence of the NFL.

    Since then 13 more minorities have been hired as NFL head coaches, and if you count coaches with multiple jobs, a minority has been hired as an NFL head coach 18 times since 2003.

    In other words, before the Rooney Rule, the NFL hired a minority coach every 12 years (7 in 83 seasons) and afterwards, the NFL hired an average of 1.8 minority coaches per season. That’s a rate that’s over 20 times higher. That’s palpable progress, without resorting to quotas.

    One thing we could do is to adopt an unofficial Rooney Rule for panels; all panel organizers ought to invite at least one female speaker. She might not accept, but that dramatically increase the number of invitations extended to women.”

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:29 am

      I know the Rooney rule and believe it was a good one. They wanted coaches to open their eyes to more than just the typical candidate, but still ultimately choose based on the best candidate for their organization. That said, we as a country have also made a lot of strides and releasing of ignorance in the decade that has passed since that rule went into effect and I think that progression has some to do with the numbers having risen as well – but certainly not negating the value that the Rooney rule had on progression in the NFL.

      I see no issue with conference organizers reaching out to women to send in pitches. I’d encourage it. I start to disagree where the woman is guaranteed a slot – it quickly turns into a quota of placing one female speaker per panel.

  21. Taly on April 15, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    People are completely gone crazy with all that tolerance there in USA.

    They are looking for hidden meanings when there are no ones, or waste their time for things that don’t matter just to feel themselves important and needful.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:30 am

      Taly – I actually hate tolerance. Because it implies something is so bad, we have to “tolerate” it. What the USA needs to work on is acceptance and educating ignorance. :)

  22. Rose on April 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    I do like your post but as someone else mentioned in the comments one should not forget about the inherent biases people have. There was a recent study that showed how both male and female university professors (in science fields) reviewing the same post-doc candidate description were harsher and offered a lower pay when the resume had a female name than when it had a male name.
    I really wonder why don’t people focus more on having blind screenings as often as possible (no name/personal info displayed)? This could go from university admissions, job interviews, all the way to conference submissions. I do know that when you run a business you care a lot about attracting people, and big, known names in the industry will be the ‘selling point’; but that’s why you have keynote speakers. Why not have the rest selected just by judging their work not knowing who they are.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:32 am

      Rose – I commented a bit on why the blind selection process (for conferences) is an issue for me here.

  23. Dennis on April 15, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Do you feel the same way about affirmative action and colleges? The same argument applies equally to both.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:34 am

      I feel everyone should have a chance. No one should be denied something based on their sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. But I also don’t believe someone should be “given” something based on those either. No one that I know of personally is receiving loads of speaking pitches from females and trashing them with refusal to let them speak because they are a woman (which would definitely be a problem).

  24. issa diao on April 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    This is an old, old argument. And it isn’t a good one. If you have a group of white men picking people to speak at conferences, surprise, surprise, they are going to tend to pick other white men to speak. That doesn’t mean that any of the people involved are racist or sexist. It’s perfectly possible for everyone to be completely well-intentioned and STILL make biased selections. The only way to break this cycle, in any of the myriad ways it exists, is to set quotas. Quotas don’t mean the quality of presentation will go down—it means the EFFORT put into finding diverse speakers must go up. I can’t think of any conference where everyone qualified to speak is on the bill.

    Bottom line: just because no one is the bad guy doesn’t mean that the status quo is acceptable.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:53 am

      Issa – I agree with your “bottom line” statement – but I disagree that the perceived lack of female speakers is purely the result of sexism and that quotas are the answer to increasing female presence on panels.

  25. Marcus on April 15, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    I get your point Rae, but if you’re right then why are women so under-presented as speakers? Let’s consider the possibilities here:
    1. Possession of a penis confers powers of technical wizardy and public-speaking mojo that means people without penises are unable to match the prowess of penis-owners in tech speaking roles.
    2. The organisers of the event only want people with penises on stage (agreed, unlikely)
    3. The tech industry/environment has some inherent bias favouring penis-owners that means that people without penises are less likely to succeed in the industry and become speakers.

    If the stage is 95% male, when being male confers no intrinsic advantage to the candidate, then something’s going wrong somewhere. If the selection process isn’t biased in some way then the unavoidable conclusion is that men are better at public speaking on tech subjects. Is that really the conclusion you’re drawing here? If so then it’s a subject worth a research paper or two, because we should try and discover the cause of men’s amazing ability in this area.

    The more likely conclusion, obviously, is that somewhere along the line the female candidates are getting deterred or weeded out and not making it to the stage. Which means that women are facing an unfair handicap to get to the stage, which in turn means that there are women with objectively better speeches who are being rejected in favour of men with objectively poorer speeches because the women are facing disadvantages that the men aren’t.

    Creating a 20% quota isn’t allowing women with unworthy speeches into the line-up, it’s just recognising the inherent bias and correcting it to allow women with better speeches than the men they’re replacing to come forward.

    I’m all for a meritocracy, but 95% bias is not a meritocracy, it’s sexism. And we’re missing out on all the amazing contributions that women could be making to this industry because we’re being a bunch of dicks.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:42 am

      I’ve chosen speakers for conference panels a few times. 50% of the pitches I’ve received each time were total crap – male or female aside. If I am only getting 20% of the pitches from women – the number of acceptable pitches to choose from is almost always cut in half from the door – again, for both men and women. Then I have to look at the merit of the pitches. Which pitches do I think attendees would be most interested in? Then I have to look at their prior speaking history (if there is one, and there not being one is not a negative – the only negative would be a prior history of not being a great speaker). I’m looking at them as a PERSON the entire time.

      “The more likely conclusion, obviously, is that somewhere along the line the female candidates are getting deterred or weeded out and not making it to the stage.”

      Actually, the more likely conclusion is the women likely represent a minority of those pitching for speaking slots and thus a minority of speakers who make it to being on a panel. THAT is the exact problem I was complaining about in this post. The automatic assumption that female speakers have a “handicap”. It’s, IMHO, a dangerous and “victim” assumption to make.

      • Marcus on April 16, 2013 at 1:03 pm

        So why do women represent a minority of those pitching for speaking slots?

        Logically, if there’s no bias in the system, and no inherent advantage of being male, then women aren’t pitching to speak because they don’t want to.

        There are a range of possible issues as to why women don’t want to speak at tech conferences, but given that women are happy to speak at other industry’s conferences, it’s probably something to do with the tech industry that’s deterring them.

        I’m not saying women are victims, I’m saying there’s a lot of idiotic attitudes in the tech scene. There’s a lot of macho bullsh*t in the industry that we really need to fix. Attitudes to women are only part of the wider problem. Others are:
        – working ridiculous hours (it doesn’t show dedication, it shows an inability to estimate accurately)
        – ‘brogrammer’… well… everything
        – the startup ‘rockstar’ culture that negates teamwork
        – getting ‘wired in’ (feels amazing, produces bad code)
        etc, etc… you know the issue, the ‘hoo-ra’ idiocy that stops us from being taken seriously as a profession. Sexism is part of it.

        • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm

          I don’t claim to have “the sole answer” as to why we have less women speakers.

          I know that the ratio of women vs. men in tech definitely leans towards men – the industry being more male than female will typically be reflected in the number of female speakers – however in my experience, the ratio isn’t split the same re speakers as it is in attendees.

          That said, there’s several potential things that might affect the number of women pitching…

          – I know events surrounding my children have caused me not to pitch for a conference or two. I typically speak at least ten times a year, but if a conference conflicts with one of my kid’s birthdays for instance, I won’t be pitching for it (but then again, neither would most fathers)
          – I know my fourth pregnancy was particularly hard – and high risk – which meant I didn’t speak for a six month time frame because I wasn’t allowed to fly (now THAT problem is indeed only specific to women, LOL)
          – Insecurity could be a reason – maybe women get intimidated by the heavily male lineups (but then that insecurity is something that needs to be “fixed” within themselves)
          – A lot of commenters have suggested women merely don’t “put themselves out there” or “request recognition” as much as men (IMHO, that’s a reason that they can only blame themselves for – you can’t win a game while sitting on the sidelines)
          – I know several women in tech that work from home – their partners having a “standard career” without the benefit of a flexible schedule could affect their ability to travel freely if they have children (though this could also apply to men)
          – Nepotism – which has nothing to do with sexism (a lot of speakers land their slots based on who they know. IMHO, nepotism is a MUCH bigger problem regarding the speaker lineups of most conferences than sexism)
          – Money might be another hindrance for some – not all conferences pay for speakers to speak (instead you get notoriety, a notch for your About page and clients if you take them) – various studies have shown women tend to be a bit more conservative with money than men overall (an opinion which directly conflicts with me as I am not, LOL)
          – And then that plays into “risk” – if you’re not being paid to speak at a conference and have to shell out your own cash for airfare and hotel – then it’s a “risk” as far as return on investment – and supposedly women are more averted towards risks if you believe the studies
          – Honestly, publications telling women they’re lesser than men are a big pet peeve with me – because I believe that some women take this to heart and let it affect what they go after in life (screw you ForbesWoman) – they shouldn’t though
          – Various studies suggest women may be more fearful then men (I can tell you I was absolutely terrified the first few times I spoke – but I’d be willing to venture that most men are too)

          All of the above could be BS – it could also all be valid. Who knows.

    • Vesna on April 17, 2013 at 7:43 am

      Marcus, I agree with you – you said all I would want to add! Thank you!

  26. RR on April 15, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    If you do further research on this, you might end up with an IgNobel (if they have a category).

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 6:36 am

      RR – why, did I quote or proclaim some research in the article? Surely not – I gave my opinion. The is an OP-ED piece, not a college research paper. Again, people see what they want to see.

  27. Kevin on April 16, 2013 at 12:44 am

    Great opinion piece. I completely agree with what you said.

    I think there are a lot of attitudes around like “She was probably only chosen to look pretty” when women are in the tech space, because I guess people just aren’t used to women being productive members of the industry yet. Which is stupid, of course. So, as you said, filling a quota will only keep attitudes like this around.

    But the one argument I can’t shake is where having women being more visible in the tech space would be more likely to get people use to it and encourage more women to get into the industry. Of course, as you said about if you have a daughter, encouraging girls while they are young to aim for the industry would help.

    My personal opinion is that it is probably the interests that are relevant to the industry, e.g. computers and maths if you want to be a programmer, are generally marketed towards boys. I am not a woman, so I have no idea if seeing very few women in the industry is an off-putting thing for girls, but I just think logically if the interests you need to aim for an industry are more associated with the opposite sex then you are more likely to be put off than if you just don’t see your own gender in the industry.

    For example, when I was a child I gained an interest in maths and computers (mainly from my father) and eventually programming. I had no idea what the state of the industry was, what the ratio of men to women there was, etc. All I knew was that I loved programming and had the skills and interests to do it. It would only have been in my later years that I would have picked up on the fact that the industry was overrun by males and only recently that I realised that women were so lacking in the industry and that it is considered a problem.

    That is to say, I think if we encourage young girls more, tell them that women are part of the industry and love doing it, and try to remove any stigma about computers and math and whatever else being a boy’s domain, then perhaps the problem will just fix itself. Well, the problem with the lack of women entering the industry at least.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:48 am

      Agreed Kevin – I kind of look at women in tech like I do men in nursing positions. It wasn’t typically a “male” field. Seeing a male nurse used to be “out of the ordinary” so to speak. But as more and more men entered the field, seeing a male nurse became more and more normal – attitudes begin to shift about the “gender tendency” for a field. The only way to cause that shift, is to get more and more young women involved.

      “She was probably only chosen to look pretty”

      I have a friend who people assume that about a lot. She owns a multimillion dollar company in the tech space and is one of the best business minds I know. Assuming things often has its own punishments – like missing out on knowing someone that you can learn from and get connections through and overall increase the success of your career. :)

  28. Wakjob on April 16, 2013 at 1:52 am

    Um…. can you name one successful tech company created by women?

    Didn’t think so.

    Now get back in the kitchen.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 6:34 am

      LOL – can you name a single man who started a tech company who’d be alive if a woman hadn’t made the choice to carry them into this world? (Well aware my comment makes as much sense as yours LOL)

      All kidding aside though – tech isn’t simply founding the technology, but also using it. To use science as an example – saying only the person who invented the microscope has any importance and that anyone who’s found a cure for something using one earns no merit is a bit absurd at best.

      Women may not have invented the Internet, but we sure as heck have founded and run multimillion dollar companies utilizing it. :)

  29. Diana on April 16, 2013 at 7:39 am

    To add a very more cents and maybe sense to this debate: fewer women at tech panels and events is only a small almost invisible aspect of gender bias. Women still make less than equally qualified male colleagues, etc etc. It is getting better but not a single thing that made that possible didn’t happen without a fight: education, voting, affirmative action. The assumption that the men are there because they deserve it and women are somehow responsible doesn’t really jive with a long history of struggle just to get an education to get a paycheck. It ain’t over.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:56 am

      Diana – re…

      “the assumption that the men are there because they deserve it and women are somehow responsible”

      I don’t recall making that assumption or insinuation in the article regarding females speaking on panels. I can see how my piece could have been taken that way, but, yes, if women aren’t going after what they want, then women are responsible for not getting it. Just like if my son doesn’t practice before attempting to be selected for a football team, then it’s on him if he doesn’t make it.

      • Diana on April 16, 2013 at 8:42 am

        The idea that 98% male events should not be questioned does imply that they all deserve to be there. But are you implying that getting paid less is somehow a choice? Women should simply work harder? It’s not like this is new or that there isn’t plenty of research or work on gender in IT (r any other previously male dominated filed). At least we can all be equal in our “feelings” about an issue. Of course, one could also take the huge leap of getting informed and moving beyond opinion. It amazes me how an IT crowd that relies on all kinds of hard science suddenly waxes poetic and personal as if there wasn’t some science to refer to. Google gender inequality lately :)

        • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 8:45 am

          “are you implying that getting paid less is somehow a choice”

          I never addressed the topic of pay when it comes to men vs. women. I only addressed women speaking at conferences and quotas for inclusion. I fully commented on this here.

          • Diana on April 16, 2013 at 11:49 am

            Thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t read every post. Still, I can’t see how they are not connected or what value there is in avoiding the bigger issues. I think it is a lovely gesture from men – but they ought to put their money where their mouths are – don’t accept more pay than female colleagues in the same position.

          • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 12:02 pm

            Definitely not saying the issues don’t fall under the same general umbrella. But, I try to take the approach of climbing a mountain by focusing on each individual step vs. rocketing myself from the base to the peak in a single leap. :)

  30. Misheel on April 16, 2013 at 10:55 am

    I don’t agree with quotas either. Tech industry is notorious for being predominantly male and a conference is representative of the leaders of the industry. So I understand how it could skew. Still, one woman out of twenty-three presenters is indicative of the sad state of this industry. Women are somehow repelled from math, engineering, science, and technology fields, attracted to nursing and teaching.

    Why is this happening? It’s because of perceived roles women play (of being nurturer, educator, upholding values – conservative stance) and the difficulties they must overcome, socially and mentally to claim a different role. Women are not perceived to be the innovators, risk takers, and, if we go even further or anachronistically, “as rational” and logical as men. These perceived roles continue to affect what young teenage girls do when they choose what to study in college. Quotas try to “reserve space” for the minority, to discourage this imbalance. While I don’t condone forced re-balancing this way, I can argue for this position, just to put it in perspective.

    Incidentally, as the commentator above me noted, the male-dominated jobs pay more and the female-dominated jobs pay less. Perhaps it’s a lingering nod to the sentiment that men should be the “bread-winners.” Even when men and women work the same jobs, research consistently show women getting less pay. So yes, when we talk about quotas, equal pay issue is absolutely and closely related, because we’re talking about how women’s efforts are devalued just on the basis of gender. Most readers in America would agree that’s unfair. In fact, this gap is narrowing, thanks to popular agreement that it’s unfair… Progress. :-)

    How else can we actively work towards equality and truly equal opportunity? It seems to me, an active effort on part of leadership of the industry to find more female success stories could help encourage other women and encourage a few more teenage girls. The tech industry conference planners certainly don’t HAVE TO care about this and we should not force them to, but they should care.

    -Female, who is working on becoming a Math teacher.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 12:05 pm

      Misheel – in regards to your last paragraph – I cannot agree more. What I’m tired of seeing is whining and assumption and why we’re “victims”. I do everything I can to put myself out there and teach other women there is no piegonhole to climb out of providing you don’t allow someone to put you in one. :)

    • Diana on April 16, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      Misheel, your position is very generous but it still avoids the structural problems that exist. It is not only (either way) that girls don’t go towards science and maths, they are actively discouraged by academic structures from a very early age. This is well documented. And you are right to point out wage disparity between male and female jobs – but I am really talking about wage disparity between women and men in the same job with the same qualifications – women are paid less in all western countries. The percentages vary, but even in Nordic countries. I think it is great that there is increased social awareness that this is unfair, but the real changes have been due to affirmative action and equal opportunity legislation. Women can sue for discrimination, that costs money and is bad for business. It seems quotas are a bad word in this discussion, but maybe the real problem is gender discrimination. One woman in an an event of 27 men is never not going to the token woman – and worse for her and us – we will all be judged by her performance. She then stands for Women. And that is gender discrimination no matter how good the intentions of the organizers. At least a quota would give US a fighting chance.

      As a disclaimer, I should add that I’ve been at this for about 20 years, organize IT events and don’t have any problem finding plenty of totally competent women working with every aspect of all things digital. But I stopped doing “pitch” type events because they were overrun by men (way less competent) and kind of dead ends. Research into who is doing innovative work pays off, but it also means more work and outreach. It also means I can learn from the long history of what women have contributed to the field: Ada Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin, Donna Haraway and many more. Where would we all be without their groundbreaking scientific work? Women need to learn this but so do men. Over here in Germany, the conservative government just voted to maybe introduce a 30% quota in 2020 for women. One hopes for a return to the numbers of East Germany, when women in IT was around 50%, but not with this government.

      Finally, good luck to you with becoming a math teacher! Maybe aim higher and go for Professor!


  31. Ashley Mason on April 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I think a few people on down the list summed up my points exactly. Specifically Michelle Robbins and Corey Shelton, and Vicki earlier down the list. Your article brings up the same points that have been written about inequalities across the board – work, education, salary. etc. And you’re right in that no one wants to feel like they’ve been given a position just bc of a quota. But, I do find it problematic that you did not talk about how to fix this or the systemic roots behind it. Other people have done so in the comments already so I will briefly retouch.

    Before that happens though, I would like to say that think post would be a more constructive argument by addressing ways to fix the issue rather than just complain about it. It very much sounds like your overall message is “I’m good at my job and most of the other women aren’t”, when instead you should be saying “I’m good at my job, and happen to be a women, let’s uphold the tech world to making sure they employ/invite more quality female speakers”. Pointing out all the bad female speakers some conferences feel forced to get without some remedy to the situation does nothing. It kind of perpetuates the idea of quotas and that lots of women aren’t qualified. I too have my male friends tell me about the rubbish female speakers they’ve heard at conferences who were obviously there to fill a quota. BUT, by me sitting and talkin with them and saying – you know that’s not bc there aren’t talented women in tech, it’s bc of the organizers/higher-ups – do we start to talk about the real issues.

    The most obvious answer to me is (until the times even out) that conferences should actively seek out QUALIFIED female speakers. This does not mean exclude talented male speakers and insert a rubbish femaleone – but make sure they search x 10 for the qualified female speakers. Some people might think this is overkill… and usually those people who do think it’s overkill don’t realize the complexities that systemic inequalities have on opportunities … but it’s something that has to be done. Bc of the lack of females in tech (which is not related to skill), we have to make sure we support the talented ones.

    Then as Michelle and Corey touched upon, this is mostly a society and systemic issue that can be improved with real conversations and education. I think affirmative action in its proper sense (not based on quotas but ACTIVELY seeking out those diverse individuals that meet the qualifications required) is similar to this discussion. Since women and ethnic minorities historically haven’t been allowed the same opportunities, it’s our duty to correct that by seeking out the best candidates and making sure we support them to make paths for future applicants. In the future, in order to avoid conversations about quotas and someone’s “worth”, we have to start making these changes now even if it means going out of our way.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 12:23 pm

      “I would like to say that think post would be a more constructive argument by addressing ways to fix the issue rather than just complain about it”

      That’s why I gave six valid suggestions to helping move progress forward at the end of the post. This problem didn’t appear overnight and there’s no solution that is going to fix it overnight either.

      “I’m good at my job and most of the other women aren’t”

      I’m not sure how you got that from my post, but it’s not what I said in writing, nor how I feel. I am good at my job. What I said was that forcing a % of women on conference panels was BS. I also said I go after what I want. I’ve said in comments that I feel no empathy for people who sit on the sidelines and then wonder why they’re not winning the game. No where did I say, or infer, that plenty of other women in tech are not talented or good at their jobs. Sure, not every woman is, but neither is every man.

      “Pointing out all the bad female speakers some conferences”

      Honestly, to me it looks like you decided on the point, tone and overall message of my post before you read it. Not once did I point out bad female speakers or say female speakers overall were bad. I simply said that the best presentation should win and that a “lesser” presentation – if submitted by a woman – should not replace a “better” presentation by a man for the sake of having a woman on a panel. No where did I say, infer or make a point that the woman’s presentation would automatically be lesser – or that a man’s would automatically be better. Only that speaker selection should ride on merit, not sex.

      “This does not mean exclude talented male speakers and insert a rubbish female one”

      Which is EXACTLY the entire point of my post.

      “we have to make sure we support the talented ones”

      Which is EXACTLY what I said people needed to do at the end of my post.

      “haven’t been allowed the same opportunities”

      Women do have the same opportunities to land conference panels. If they’re not pitching for them, then we need to convince them to start doing so and not depend solely on conference organizers to do so. We as females in the tech community have just as much responsibility to showcase what we can do as conference organizers do.

  32. AliciaTW on April 16, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Heh Heh Heh. Try doing a TEDx in South Africa.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      LOL, I can only imagine. :) I’ve never done a TEDx before, but I’ve also never had someone nominate me for one (or nominated myself LOL). Maybe I’ll have to check out the next Houston one. :)

  33. Nicole on April 16, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I attended the WISE 2013 Symposium in Syracuse, NY today – an all-women event for women business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. I have also been to tech-focused conferences where the attendees were, in my estimation, 70% men and 30% female. I think there were 5 or 6 female panelists (this was SMX West in..2009?) Anyway – at today’s event, women were SO comfortable networking, asking questions, and sharing their story. I think that the fact that it was a women-only (there were a handful of guys there) event empowered women. They didn’t feel that intimidation that they may feel at other conferences. Sadly, we’re conditioned to accept that intimidation not only in the tech industry but in every industry. I have worked in tech for 5 + years and had a terrible experience at my first tech company – I was isolated, silenced, belittled, threatened, teased and eventually let go for a BS reason. I was the first woman they hired, by the way – no coincidence there. The point is, now women who are asked to speak on a panel at a conference will have a voice in the back of their mind asking “Am I only here to fulfill the ‘woman quota?'” So unacceptable to me. If you’re a hot chick in tech, you’re a target. If you’re a mediocre-looking woman in tech, you’re a target. If you’re a super-smart, ambitious, opinionated woman in tech (sound familiar Rae?) you’re a target. We all have a target on our back. We can all “lean in” and all that noise, but at the end of the day, what we really need to do is ignore that doubting voice and continue to speak up/blog/Tweet and let our voices be heard. If I were on a panel, I’d say HELL YEAH, I’M ON THE PANEL! and guess what? Whether they picked me to fill a quota/make the ugly tech nerds sitting next to me on the panel look better, WHATEVER, I’m still on the panel! People are still going to hear what I have to say. Small victories!

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      Nicole – if you were at SMX West 2009, I would have been one of the women speaking there. :) I know for a fact there were more than 5-6 women speaking BUT, they run four sessions concurrently all day, so depending on the sessions you attended, it’s absolutely possible you only saw 5-6 women speak. I hope that made sense, LOL.

      Honestly, I’ve never felt like a target – maybe re a few individuals (male and female) but not in the “industry” so to speak – but, I also make no qualms about the fact that if someone messes with me, I’ll gladly come back at anyone who does with both barrels. LOL

  34. Duncan Bayne on April 16, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    The problem with *-ism (racism, sexism, etc.) is that individuals are judged as members of a group, not according to their individual merits. To quote Rand (talking of racism, but it applies equally to sexism):

    “Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.”

    The problem is the treatment of individuals in this fashion, regardless of whether it’s seen as harmful (“no women allowed at this conference”) or beneficial (“half the speakers at this conference must be women”) to the victims.

    There is an excellent article ( http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_diversity ) that addresses the issue from the perspective of racial quotas:

    “Advocates of “diversity” are true racists in the basic meaning of that term: they see the world through colored lenses, colored by race and gender. To the multiculturalist, race is what counts—for values, for thinking, for human identity in general. No wonder racism is increasing: colorblindness is now considered evil, if not impossible. No wonder people don’t treat each other as individuals: to the multiculturalist, they aren’t.”

    • Rae Hoffman on April 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Duncan – thanks for the comment – it definitely leads one to think. Just got done reading the article you referenced from the Ayn Rand Institute – also very, very thought provoking. Thanks so much for posting it. :)

    • Diana on April 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm

      But Rand is really a controversial thinker – as is this position. It is reductive, over simplistic and denies a history of racist and sexist regimes. Rand is considered a fascist by many, so these views on diversity and multiculturalism should be taken with a grain of salt. What is a multiculturalist?

      Is that a civil rights activist in the Mississippi in the 50s? Again, a word like victim has been invoked, but what of perpetrator? Oppressor? What of racist and sexist? These things exist and wishing them away hasn’t ever helped. Does anybody really deny that racism and sexism exist today? That there are victims and there are perpetrators? That we are all equal if we ignore these things. Is this the IT culture you want to participate in?

      • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 8:09 am

        Diana – I personally don’t deny racism or sexism – I just hate when people assume sexism is the reason for a heavily male conference speaker lineup vs. contemplating the myriad of other reasons that could have contributed to it.

  35. Duncan Bayne on April 16, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Rae, thanks – glad you found it interesting.

    This line of reasoning (sexism and racism are irrational collectivist thinking) informs my approach to healthy workplaces: not thinking in terms of “how can we make our company an attractive employer for [some minority in the industry]”, and instaed thinking in terms of “how can we make our workplace humane?”

    E.g. take maternal leave and associated flexibility. If your company is doing it right – flexible hours, work from home, etc. etc., then you shouldn’t need policies specific to a particular sex or circumstance.

    Or personal safety. If you have a zero-tolerance policy towards intimidation. that’s good for everyone, not just specifically men or women.

    Granted, there are a few sex-specific areas (sanitary products spring to mind) that could be instituted. But for the most part, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander :)

    Finally, a personal note: my wife is an helicopter pilot. When she graduated, she took her freshly minted pilot’s license in hand and went around the various companies in our area looking for work. She was told by one company “sure, by all means send in your resume, but you should know that we operate an unofficial no chicks policy.”

    Terrible, yes. But imagine if they’d said, “sure, by all means send in your resume, we have an affirmative action programme and need to hire a woman.”

    Which is worse? Me personally, I’d be angrier with the latter.

    • Diana on April 16, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      Duncan, it is interesting that you bring in Rand, but I’m really curious if you have read other works on diversity and multiculturalism, especially those that might contradict Rand’s position. I haven’t read Rand at all, but in Europe and especially Germany, IT people would not refer to her because they’d be called Fascists. Not in the American slang sense, but in a very real WWII sense. So I’m surprised to see it pop up here. I’m also kind of curious about your ideas on individuals – you are white and male – so it comes easy. But have you ever been in group that suffered by a dominant cultural perspective that predefined what you could be? I would love to enjoy the freedom to not be judged as anything other than myself. As a Mexican American Woman, it is something I’ve had to fight for. To really complicate it, I look black. So racism and sexism are just party of a lifelong reality for me. I have to justify those things all the time – explain why I’m present at an IT thing despite working with Irix for 20 years, have a long history of IT work etc… Professional contacts will ask about my hair, or even worse, touch it on a frequent basis – well documented as leftovers of racist and sexist cultures. It hasn’t stopped me from being productive, but it has really tuned me into diversity and informed how I work. I look for the best people and I often find them on the margins, minorities and women. They are doing the most innovative work and we all share this lack of enjoying that personal freedom of just being an ‘individual.’ Could you imagine presenting a talk and having a stranger come up afterwards not to ask about the talk, but to touch your hair and ask about it? That moment of enforced difference kind of distracts from the people that want to talk about what you actually talked about. Those hair touchers are always ‘individuals’ that enjoy that freedom of themselves to take that liberty. I just can’t imagine wanting to touch other people like they were pets. Does it matter? Kind of, because if you don’t have to deal with stuff like that, it is easy to imagine some kind of equal individual.

    • Diana on April 17, 2013 at 12:42 am

      I believe you are in Australia. As in most countries, there are actual anti-discrimination laws in place. So your wife could have pursued legal options: who wants to? Still, she had more options. Of course, I find it interesting that in your hypothetical reaction, you would be more angered by a potential chance than a no chance based purely on gender. Is there any logical explanation for this? I mean, how do you reconcile this totally illogical hypothetical emotional response with reason?

      Do you really think the second option implies that the company hires unqualified morons if they are women? Do you think affirmative action means automatic hiring of “minority” without considering the qualifications needed for the job? Where did you get this impression of affirmative action programs? See, I would read that as being explicitly open to qualified women and minorities. Your reading of this as negative suggests that you as a white male would regard any woman or minority as unqualified by simply taking the job. And that is bias – worse, in a power position, discriminatory.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 8:17 am

      “She was told by one company ‘sure, by all means send in your resume, but you should know that we operate an unofficial no chicks policy.'”

      In a prior post I did regarding Forbes telling women “how to compete for a man’s job” #headdesk I had mentioned this story in the post, but I’ll repeat it (shortened) here again.

      I’d gone to meet with a potential client with my business partner (male). The client rarely spoke to me directly. When he asked a question and I began to answer, he would cut me off and essentially ask my partner to finish my answer. After the meeting, my partner had said he wouldn’t have been surprised if the guy had asked me to get him some coffee. We laughed and wondered if he’d even realized that I was the CEO of the company and not my partner’s secretary. I refused to take him on as a client. His punishment was losing a talented firm to help him in his marketing efforts. After relaying this story I asked…

      “I’m sure women have gone to interview with ‘that guy’ and experienced hiring bias. But would you really want to work for ‘that guy’? Would you really say yes to a job working for someone who thought you were beneath them for ANY reason? Regardless of your gender?”

      I never would. And God help the women he hires merely to fulfill a quota.

      That said, I’d like to be clear that the topic of this post was merely women speakers and conferences – not sexual oppression in the workplace. :)

  36. Erika Napoletano (@RedheadWriting) on April 17, 2013 at 6:24 am

    I love this for many reasons.

    1) For a fellow woman in tech having the balls to call bullshit on this mythical quota system that someone arbitrarily decided was an issue. Also: I’m out of almond milk (filed under: Things of Equal Importance).

    2) Asking where it ends. Frankly, I don’t care about seeing more women speaking. I care about conferences bringing me speakers that can help me improve my business practices. I don’t much care about their personal chromosome collection.

    3) Pitch Well. Holy crapsnacks — can we talk about this for a minute? Ask a conference organizer about the overall pitch quality. It’s possible their make a gesture akin to gouging out their eyeballs with a rusty appliance. I don’t care about your gender — if you can’t put together a pitch that makes it a no-brainer for conference organizers to add you to the agenda, that’s a YOU problem, not a conference problem.

    Finally, if your decision to attend a conference comes down to “there just aren’t enough women on the dias,” then maybe you should rethink why you’re attending a conference. Because it sure doesn’t sound like you’re going for the information, relationships, and community.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 8:19 am

      Erika – thank you regarding your first comment and bang on with your follow up statements. I couldn’t agree more. :)

  37. Vesna on April 17, 2013 at 8:01 am

    Rae, thank you for your opinion, for providing a space for informed and respectful discussion, and for all the replies to the comments! I find it very interesting to read the whole collection in one place!

    I am a woman in tech, I have been studying in most-male university, and working in Internet industry for last 20 years. I am a speaker at conferences, and was also involved in choosing the talks for events, so I saw it from both sides.

    As someone already pointed out, I find it not very constructive to focus on how it is fault of female speakers who either did not pitch for talks to be included, or were not good enough to be selected; there is a structural cause for the 95% bias, and it can not be that women are responsible for being underrepresented.

    I would prefer to focus on the conference organisers and their role: if I would be organising a conference, I would not look forward to the questions such as were asked in this comments thread: how can we know that the organisers were not deliberately refusing women? I suggest: making it very transparent what were the criteria; what efforts were made to attract wider variety of speakers (rather then: “Hey, we have a conference! Do you want to speak?” ) ; and acknowledging the “problem” that can be perceived by some, in advance.

    On the more active side, I agree with your suggestions form the end of the article, and would like to repeat what some other comments said: conference organisers: reach out actively to women in tech! Approach them on their mailing lists, web-forums, IRC channels… Not for some imaginary “quota”, but to either show your true belief that they do have something to offer to your audience – or from the self-interest of _not_ being criticized by the next bunch of articles when your conference ends up being 95% male ;-)

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 8:22 am

      Vesna – thank you. I’ve been both shocked and beyond pleased with the maturity level of the comments and would like to thank each and every commenter for upping the bar on a discussion of a controversial topic without resorting to behavior unbecoming of human beings. :)

      I would like to see an active effort by organizers to seek out female speakers if they’re not getting pitches from them, but, IF women aren’t putting themselves in the game, I absolutely hold them responsible for not winning it so to speak.

  38. Diana on April 17, 2013 at 8:43 am

    I appreciate the discussion here, but one funny thing that strikes me about it how it is fueled by opinion and subjective interpretations as if this hasn’t been a field of research. Of as if there wasn’t a lot of work addressing why there is a gender gap in IT along with corrective measures.

    I think we all agree that a conference speaker should know what they are talking abut and be well informed about their subject. We’d never accept a talk that was only based on their feelings and opinions. But suddenly everybody is an expert based on private experience. Why not get more informed about the issue? Do quotas work? Maybe it is worth looking into that, along with other models that address the gender gap.

    It is maybe also worth looking at perceptions of “the token woman”. Chances are that if you are the only woman at an IT conference, some of the organizers and a lot of the public will believe you are there just because you are a woman. Does that affect how they hear what you have to say?

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 8:51 am

      Diana – this was always meant to be an OP-ED piece. :)

      “some of the organizers and a lot of the public will believe you are there just because you are a woman”

      If the conference isn’t forced to include me, there’s no reason for anyone to ponder if I’m a token or if I was chosen for a reason. Honestly for the few who might think that, of a conference without quotas in place, I believe the second I open my mouth, people know that not to be the case.

      “one funny thing that strikes me about it how it is fueled by opinion and subjective interpretations” … “Chances are” … “a lot of the public will believe”

      Also opinion and subjective interpretations. And ones I welcome hearing, don’t get me wrong. I just wanted to point out that stating that the post and subsequent comments are merely opinion followed by a comment also based on opinion based statements is a bit contradictory.

      “I think we all agree that a conference speaker should know”

      Yep – I think that’s one thing most of us agree on. I think where the debate comes in is if one presentation on a scale of 1-10 is a 9 and one is a 8 – should the one at an 8 be picked over the 9 simply because the one that would score an 8 was pitched by a woman and the one that would score a 9 was pitched by a man. My answer to that would be a resounding no. And same for vice versa. :)

  39. Kathy on April 17, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I was really hesitant to read this article. I get your notifications on my cell phone and this one has come across like 3 or 4 times. lol I thought, “Oh no. Please don’t tell me that Sugarrae is going to jump on the bandwagon of “the world is full of women-haters.”

    I agree with you whole-heartedly. I’m so glad you have started this side of the conversation.

    It really floors me how the proponents of the quota system are saying we want to be treated equally, then from the other side of the cakehole they say give us special treatment. ugh. really makes me scream sometimes.

    Thanks for writing this, even tho it doesn’t make you any money (I’ll go buy something from one of your sites, lol). And thanks for not letting me down (which I totally know is not your job, but I appreciate it, lol).

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      You’re very welcome and I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

  40. Diana on April 17, 2013 at 11:10 am

    I think its great that you bring the topic up because you have a broad and mixed public!
    In spite of it being an Op-ed, I would suggest that everybody inform themselves about what these things actually are: gender gap for example (not you) but somebody wrote something along the lines of “supposed gender gap” about a conference with 97% males – that is a gender gap. We can all have our views about why that is, but it is a gender gap :) You would be important to open up more questions about how this works because you have the ear (apparently) of organizers.

    What I find unproductive about not going deeper into the conditions that create that gender gap is that it goes back to your 1-10 point above. The idea that a quota would result in less qualified women presenting reaffirms the very real perception that women are to blame for the gender gap and assumes that men would be better. I liked the comment about making the selection criteria more public. That might help a lot. I did a ton of research on this years ago and that perception of “Token Woman” is a lot more present than any of us would like to believe – so I can live with the apparent contradiction in voicing my opinion because it is an informal sharing of research. Informed opinions :) They tend to contradict my own personal experiences more than anything though!

    I guess I”m more like you, big, bossy, smart, sexy and loud – and I do tons of public talks – but I also had to do a lot of work to get that. Still, I can’t ignore all the research about how women are perceived and work in IT and have to support measures to make conditions a bit better for all those amazing women out there. We all do them a huge disservice by reaffirming the status quo that they don’t exist (the actual numbers of women in IT are much higher than public events suggest, or the kinds of public perception we are talking about.

    Sorry to go on, but there a lot people that are great at doing pitches and talks, but don’t have that much to say, so I’d love to see lots of different sets of criteria for how we all (male and female) share knowledge and information.

    BTW: it is totally hilarious that a guy above was considerate enough to think that women in the workplace might need feminine hygiene products supplied. No female quotas for conferences but we want Tampons in all the bathrooms! Can you imagine the debates – applicators vs non-applicators. Panty liners or pads? Wings or no wings? bio-degradable!

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      Hahahahahaha. :)

  41. Kim Krause Berg on April 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I used to complain about not having a “wife” at home taking care of my kids and household so I could travel and speak. My work around was to blog my ass off and write for well branded sites. As a sole proprietor for 15 years all work came to a halt if I left, whereas in-house employees or upper level management don’t have that pressure. My point being that some of the best expertise or choices for speakers simply can’t drop everything and go. Male or female, but my bet is this situation hits women more often.

    I’ve never understood why conferences don’t offer video presentations for this very reason.

    Quotas = no. If I discovered I was a quota speaker, I’d be upset but kick ass anyway.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 17, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Hey Kim,

      Me personally, I wouldn’t to see video presentations – if that were the case, I’d save myself airfare and hotel and just watch them at home. ;-)

      Totally agree with all of your last sentence.

  42. Matt Dance on April 17, 2013 at 3:45 pm


    Good to hear more females pointing out the absurdity of the quota thing.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 18, 2013 at 6:21 am

      Me too Matt, LOL. I think that was what keeps annoying me most – is that it’s portrayed as if all women feel this way, when many don’t. :)

  43. Melanie Egerton on April 18, 2013 at 8:07 am

    Hi Rae,

    If I was accepted as a speaker because I’m female and not because I’m excellent at what I do, I’d kick the organizers in the balls…hard!

    • Rae Hoffman on April 24, 2013 at 9:55 am

      Haha Melanie – I feel the same. :)

  44. Diana on April 19, 2013 at 6:39 am

    Interesting, but when do you think the mostly guy organizers deciding on mostly guy pitches notice a pitch is from a woman? And when does it matter? Do they see 100 pitches and 10 from women? Or just 100 pitches?

    • Rae Hoffman on April 24, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer to that. I know when I look at pitches, I’m not looking at the sex of the person pitching – only the content they’re pitching.

      • Diana on April 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm

        Maybe there is research into this in terms of judging pitches. There is ample data to show that women earn less and achieve less “success” than their male counterparts with the same level of education, experience, etc etc. In a pitch setting, what percentage of judges would it take to make a score of 8 a 7 or a 6 by having the opinions expressed here about women in IT? If a judge thinks women send in less good pitches, do they know that they think a pitch is less good because it is submitted by a woman?

  45. Duncan Bayne on April 21, 2013 at 10:26 pm


    Your response re. Rand and Germany is an example of the ‘poisoning the well’ logical fallacy (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/poisoning-the-well.html). Subtle, and well executed on your part: a reader could come away from your piece with the impression that Objectivism is equivalent to Fascism, despite that being untrue.

    For interested readers, here’s what Rand had to say about fascism (http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/fascism-nazism.html):

    “The efficiency of the government in dominating its subjects, the all-encompassing character of its coercion, the complete mass regimentation on a scale involving millions of men—and, one might add, the enormity of the slaughter, the planned, systematic mass slaughter, in peacetime, initiated by a government against its own citizens—these are the insignia of twentieth-century totalitarianism (Nazi and communist), which are without parallel in recorded history.”

    Perhaps you should read some Rand before likening her philosophy to fascism?

    Re. the wrongs you cite – and they _are_ wrongs: they are the consequence of collectivism, of people treating you on the basis of your race and sex instead of as the individual you are.

    I understand my own privilege here: for the most part, I’m judged on my own merits rather than as a member of a group. That’s the result of a series of accidents: my nationality, my race, my sex.

    But surely what we should be striving for is a society where all people are treated as individuals?

    I think we should be, and I think that’s why we should reject all forms of collectivist thinking, even where the intent is good (such as ‘affirmative action’ or sex quotas).

    • Diana on April 25, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Thank you for the response. I’m simply being honest about Rand being a controversial thinker – and certainly one that is linked to fascist ideas by many people. I don’t read her, haven’t and don’t plan to. But maybe you should read some counter positions that challenge controversial ideas. I trust you know she is controversial. I don’t worry about collectivist thinking as much as the social realities of racism, sexism, and a lot of other isms. To suggest that combating these things as a “multiculturalist” is the real racist problem is just absurd. Maybe individuality is overrated. Either way, congratulations for bringing up the real issue women face in the work place: sanitary products! I’m fairly certain Rand didn’t write about that.

  46. Tiffany on April 24, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Amen. Once again, you are right on.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 24, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Tiffany!

  47. Meg on April 24, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I’m completely flummoxed by how “well-known” it is that women are reluctant to pitch conferences, and how that needs to be “addressed”. What? You don’t feel comfortable doing the same thing everyone else has to do… so you want to change the process?

    This isn’t the TSA scanner revealing your bits to the world! This is pitching to speak! Get your ideas together, write them up well, and SUBMIT YOUR PITCH. If you want something, you go out and get it. If someone says no, you keep trying. And if they repeatedly say no in the face of awesomeness and it’s obviously solely due to your chromosomes, then let’s chase them with lawn darts… but until you’ve actually tried, how can you complain?

    • Rae Hoffman on April 29, 2013 at 8:20 am

      Meg – I agree, wholeheartedly.

  48. Brian Dean on April 26, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Great post, Rae. I think you said what a lot of people don’t have the guts to say about sex discrimination: quotas aren’t going to fix the underlying reason why there are so few women in our field.

    I don’t claim to have the solution. But I’m against anything that gets away from a merit-based selection process.

    This post reminded me that there are A LOT of women in IM that I follow and respect: you, Ana Hoffman, Kim Roach…

    They didn’t need any help to get where they’re at. They earned it.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 29, 2013 at 8:21 am

      Brian – I agree. I don’t have the solution either. But every fiber of my being tells me quotas aren’t it, LOL.

  49. Diana on April 26, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    That is so funny. What does help mean here? None of the women in IT got here on our own (not that we don’t work like hell). If a lot of other women hadn’t been courageous enough to demand a few rights and force some changes in the world, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now. I’m not sure how fair a merit based system can be when we all (apparently) accept that gender bias, sexism and discrimination are just a reality. And really, forget about fair – how about good. Maybe the merit based system does more to maintain an established status qou than anything else.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 29, 2013 at 8:23 am

      Diana, I disagree. I am thankful to the many women who pioneered into the space. But I personally didn’t have to do what I’ve done in my life… no one made me – I chose to. I could have chosen not to. While many women opened doors, it was me who chose to walk through them.

      • Diana on April 29, 2013 at 5:34 pm

        It is nothing to agree with or disagree with :) This is history – the vote, education, to work, these are things women had to fight for so you (and me) could chose to do what we do. But good on you for walking through them – what a waste if none of us took advantage of the opportunities we have. But it does piss me off that even now women, on average, will have to work much harder than their male counterparts.

  50. GazD on April 27, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Great post Rae. I have been to many a conference and lets say 2 out of 10 have had no woman at all. To me its not whether you have the right ratio be it men/woman, or even race for that matter, but it’s whether the speaker brings value on that particular subject. In fact I went to a conference about a month ago, only men speaks 4 and I walked out there midway because I could just see that they were bringing no value, which to me is the important aspect.

    • Rae Hoffman on April 29, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Agreed Gaz – I’m there to learn. Period. Put the best teachers on the stage. All men, all women – don’t care as long as they give me an ROI on attending.

  51. Sarah on April 29, 2013 at 12:56 am

    We had affirmative action at a company I worked for. This is how it worked: You posted a position. You got candidates. Did you get qualified minority candidates? You didn’t? Well, you post it again. Maybe you post it on a website that is more targeted to minorities. You keep going until you get qualified candidates. Then you hire the best regardless of race/gender/other minority status.

    When the Edge Conference asked for submissions,and realized they didn’t have very many women represented, what did they do to correct the problem?

    • Rae Hoffman on April 29, 2013 at 8:26 am

      Sarah – I’m fine with requiring more pitches from more diverse diverse backgrounds. But it still begs the question, “where do we stop?” and IMHO, it won’t stop those who accept excuses for where they aren’t from claiming that there was still discrimination if a panel still ends up all male, despite an equal number of pitches.

      • Diana on April 29, 2013 at 5:42 pm

        Here I agree, but I’m also with Gaz above. It is why I don’t like the pitch system. I put on events and it means a lot of research into who is doing the most innovative work and can do a good talk or presentation. Then diversity is about a lot of things – but mostly different positions. I only count at the end, but it is always a good mix of all kinds of things. I think the gender gap is a good way to see a dead end system because it means there are other blind spots as well. Like way back in the late 90’s trying to convince colleagues that Open Source was the way to go. Huge blind spots. They were the same guys presenting the same guys that didn’t want to worry about women. It wasn’t just women that didn’t appear on their maps!

  52. Anthony Hereld on August 8, 2013 at 9:39 am

    I agree, Rae. Knowing what a strong woman you are, I wouldn’t expect you to take any other stance on this.

    The problem isn’t just restricted to the tech industry, or any industry for that matter. There is bias in this world, no doubt about it. Racism, sexism, whatever-ism. Maybe I have blinders on, but in my opinion most of us are able to see past all that at this day in age. Most.

    But there is an element in our society that still makes its mark by trying to champion the downtrodden, the weak, the unfairly treated, and the oppressed. They do more harm than good. Instead of allowing people to compete on their own merit, which is what true equality is all about, they think special rules need to apply. They’re only compounding the problem.

  53. Baconisbacon on August 4, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    The only opinionated women on this are NOT in tech and are usually self-styled feminists whose only skill is whining about things they know nothing about about (in this case “tech”).

    But, what I find amusing about this is the qualified women who spent the time, money and effort to get where they are who are *furious* at these people for making it seem like they only go to where they are because of the sole reason of being a woman.

    Anyone who thinks this is an issue is not in tech, instead they are loud irrelevant hipster douchebags parroting whatever is trendy, and right now what’s trendy is being a whiny malcontent on the internet.

  54. Michael Calkins on August 4, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Absolutely agree! I don’t care if you’re male, female, transgender, hyena, dog, bird… it’s the quality of content in the presentation that counts!

    I will not pay for any conference that has filler in it for the sake of political correctness.