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My First ETech Comments


So I'm back from a wonderful week at ETech (and time off for other unexpected emergencies). I have a ton of individual posts to make on various ETech-related topics, but here's my first cut of some highlights:

No women. (No surprise)
(I'll say more on that at the end of this post).

LifeHacks by Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann rocked.
I was so motivated I had to join the crowd and bought a copy of David Allen's book, Getting Things Done. I'm also making 43 folders a daily visit. The fact that these guys talked about the whole productivity thing in terms of "protecting your flow state" was what really did it for me. I'm all about flow : )
Here are Cory Doctorow's notes from the talk.

James Surowiecki talked on The Wisdom of Crowds and I had to rush out and buy that book as well.

Danny Hillis' Applied Minds is probably the most fun place a person could ever work.
Cory has notes on that one as well.

I could listen to George Dyson talk for 24 hours straight...
Wow. Here are David Weinberger's notes from George's talk.

I managed to do my entire 3.5 hour tutorial without once using the word "remix". I should get a prize for that... I'm pretty sure I'm the only ETech speaker to make that claim.

I loved Joel Spolsky's talk on making people happy.
Other attendees weren't so thrilled, given that they thought it was going to be about "community building." He came close to what we talk about here on passionate users, and I went away delighted (and humming "Sweet Home Alabama") and with a few new ideas. He rocks.

Oh yeah, we won the Jolt Award!!
(This took place not at ETech, but at the Software Development Conference happening at the same time in San Jose.) Head First Design Patterns took the top spot in technical books. Way to go Team Head First, and especially Eric and Beth!! Our Servlets book was one of the finalists, but didn't win. Winning the top award was a big shock for us...

I'm horrified to admit that I now want a TabletPC.
I know, I know. But when I explain it all in another post, you'll see. The guy responsible for this is Brady Forrest, who I may never forgive for making me lust--for the first time in my life (and hopefully last)--after a device that runs Windows. I must stop reading Robert Scoble, because I'm pretty sure he slips subliminal Tablet PC messages into his blog.

The Maker Fair made me seriously want to learn how to solder.
It was inspired by O'Reilly's new DIY Make magazine. I've never been one for meat-space projects (I like building virtual things instead), but I'm not sure that anyone didn't come away from this "grown up science fair" with a few project ideas.

OK, now back to the where-are-the-women thing...

I try to avoid this topic because I have such strong (passionate?) opinions about it, and they don't seem to be very popular views. In a nutshell, I am intensely against the view that tech conferences are somehow female-unfriendly. All I am willing to agree with are a few facts:

* There are far fewer women attending tech conferences than men
* The imbalance of men-to-women at these conferences is greater than the imbalance that exists in the working world. More men who work in IT attend conferences than women who work in IT.
* There are fewer presentations given by women. To me, this is a pretty direct reflection of fewer women involved PERIOD.

What I do NOT agree with:

* The idea that there is even the slightest hint of some attempt to keep women out of this world. I can't imagine a single geek at ETech saying, "These things are really best when it's just us guys..."
* That women are made to feel uncomfortable, pushed-out, or that it's all a boy's club at tech conferences. In fact, as a woman who's probably been to about 50 tech conferences over the last decade (I'm kind of an addict), I can't imagine a more ridiculous idea. I'm not saying that there aren't women who feel that way, but if they are, it's most likely their own perceptual problem. I'm definitely not going to accept the charge some women have brought against me that I'm either too clueless to even notice when I'm being disparaged, discounted, whatever, or that the fact that I don't notice all these slights just proves their point that it's so pervasive I can't even see it. I'm not stupid, clueless, or insensitive. But I'm also one of those who has a glass-half-full attitude and it takes one hell of a lot to "offend" me. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and don't assume the worst. When I have had trouble at a tech job, it has never been something I can honestly attribute to being a woman. It might have been because my boss was an idiot, or I was an idiot, but whether either of us was male or female really isn't the cause.
* That women aren't attending because there aren't enough women presenters. Sorry, but I think that's bullshit, although any conference would benefit from more diversity of thought, I just don't believe that this is why women aren't attending conferences.
* That women aren't being selected as presenters because they're women. While I can't honestly say that this has never happened at anyconference, this just doesn't make any sense. The conference presenters are pretty damn motivated to offer topics attendees want to attend (and are willing to pay for), as opposed to some conspiracy (or even subconscious motivation) to keep women out.

Having said all that, I have no idea why more women aren't attending. I love love love attending conferences. I'm not there for my career, or networking, or anything other than the pure joy of learning and getting new ideas. And I get those both from the sessions and from interacting with other excited, passionate, smart people. Having more women--or actually just more diversity of thought would make any conference better for everyone, but that doesn't stop me from having a fabulous time.

I think one of the most damaging things is when people spread this meme that "women don't go to these conferences because they aren't made to feel welcome." The more we say this, the less likely it is that women will go. (Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that.) We need a serious reframing. And often the same people who make this claim (and for very good intentions, and based on their own passionately-held beliefs), would bristle at the notion that women can't get out their and kick ass. If women need to "feel welcome" before they'll attend a conference, then what does that say?

Now, if the conference attendees were all huddled over their machines and pulling one another over to check out their latest porn sites, then yeah, that would be uncomfortable, and I'd stop going. But that's not how it is!. So far, the people at conferences who talk about porn are usually women. And remember--we're talking about geeks here. Sexy as she is, I think Boing Boing's Xeni barely turned a head at ETech... because the guys were all too busy gawking over the feral robots.

And did I mention the whole bathroom perk?

In a market-driven economy, it just makes sense that if more women attend, and if it turns out (although this is often not the case) that women want different kinds of topics, then they will speak with their dollars. Show up at the conferences, pay your entrance fees, fill out your evaluations, and then we can talk about whether there really is a problem with women deliberately being turned down because they're women. Life is too short not to be out there soaking up all the great things that happen at these conferences. I think it would be far more productive to just go to conferences as a participant. Talk to attendees. Get to know what people are interested in. If nothing else, it'll up your chances of submitting a proposal that'll be accepted. But any person (male or female) who wants on as a presenter should make sure they have paid lots of attendee dues--to really learn and understand the paying attendee's perspective.

And having said that, I will say that there are people much smarter than me who have a lot more to say about it, even if I disagree with much of it, they do get me to think. More discussions of women and ETech are at David Weinberger's blog and the outspoken (and very WELL spoken) Shelly Powers blog entry on ETech. Have fun : )

Posted by Kathy on March 21, 2005 | Permalink


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Welcome back. Your post rocks!

Regarding Joel Spolsky's talk...

I cut my business teeth working at Baskin-Robbins 31 Ice Cream corporate back in the late 70s/early 80s. Its tagline at the time: "We make people happy." I've often wondered if that formative experience is what accounts for my UXCentricity today!


Posted by: Dave Rogers | Mar 21, 2005 1:32:59 PM

But any person (male or female) who wants on as a presenter should make sure they have paid lots of attendee dues--to really learn and understand the paying attendee's perspective.

Okay, I'll bite:

For eTech 2004, I got an email notifiying me that conference proposals were being accepted. I submitted two proposals, both of which were turned down. I know it wasn't the topics, because both of the topics I pitched were sessions that year -- just done by other people.

I went to eTech 2004 even though I wasn't speaking, because I thought that it would be a good conference to go to.

The first I heard about eTech 2005 was the announcement that registration was open for attendees. I would have been happy to put in proposals again for this year's conference, but I never got a notification that proposals were being accepted.

So I have to wonder what it was that I could have done differently. Not much, from what I can see. But ORM knows where to find me if they want more women around.

BTW, this isn't just an eTech thing; it's actually been brought up about virtually all of ORM's conferences. In fact, about the only one that it hasn't been brought up about in the last year was the 2004 OS X conference. I have to say that, imo, one of the main reasons for that was that I was on the conference committee, and I made darn sure that women knew that they were welcome (nagged, in some cases) to speak and attend. At the end, there wasn't much of a jump in females there, either as speakers or attendees -- but there were zero blogosphere complaints about the ratios.

Posted by: Dori | Mar 21, 2005 2:53:25 PM

Hi Kathy -
It was nice meeting you at ETech during lunch on Tuesday!

Thanks for making a thoughtful and insightful post about the whole "women at ETech" issue. Sometimes during the conference it felt like there were two very different ETechs happening -- the one being blogged about by people who weren't there, and the one that I was attending.

I loved the ETech I attended.

I'm an O'Reilly employee, and not prepared to jump into the fray and debate various aspects of the issue or defend my perspective. And I, too, feel that my views on the matter would probably not be very popular. But you had the guts to make a post, so I decided I'd have the guts to jump in and agree. :-)


Posted by: terrie | Mar 21, 2005 6:09:14 PM

Hmm. I don't go to a huge number of technical conferences, but I do go to Lotusphere every year, and there are always a lot of women, both attending and presenting. Not sure what that contributes to the discussion, but for what it is worth...

Posted by: Ben Langhinrichs | Mar 21, 2005 8:53:50 PM

Dori, you're one of the only people I know with real credibility on this issue, and a lot of experience, so you're also one of those who does make me take another look at things. In any case, you acknowledged that women still didn't show up at the one you were on and working actively to recruit women. So I hope that *this* is the thing we can really work on, and my personal approach (I'm sure we need to throw anything we can at it, though) is a grassroots/bottom-up rather than presenter/top-down. If more women start going to conferences, regardless of what they think it might be like, they'll usually be pleasantly surprised, possibly delighted, and most importantly have a larger voice in what happens at the *next* conference.

Terrie: cheers : ) and it was nice to meet you too.

Ben: this IS interesting. Maybe if we reverse engineer the conferences that DO have more women, we can figure something out... the SXSW conference (happening unfortunately at exactly the same time as ETech) also had more women, and it might be worth exploring and speculating on some of the reasons.

Thanks all.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 21, 2005 11:04:43 PM

I actually find myself more comfortable around geek guys than around women in larger groups such as conferences. I don't see as much of a pecking order among the guys as women are capable of creating for themselves (though maybe I'm not very observant).

Of course, being a young female of the nerdy persuasion, I do get a lot of extra attention I might otherwise not receive if I were a guy. However, I do agree with you that perhaps the discomfort some women may feel at these tech conferences may be an exception to the rule.

Posted by: gillian | Mar 22, 2005 9:23:52 AM

You definitely will enjoy "The Wisdom of Crowds". I listened to the audio version (while driving to/from work) and wrote a brief entry about it on my blog (theshot92.blogspot.com).

I'm looking forward to hearing what you think about it!

Dave W.

Posted by: Dave Wheeler | Mar 22, 2005 12:28:35 PM

"If more women start going to conferences, regardless of what they think it might be like, they'll usually be pleasantly surprised, possibly delighted, and most importantly have a larger voice in what happens at the *next* conference."

Except that this is specifically why I went to last year's eTech as an attendee after my proposals were turned down (or to put it more precisely, the proposals were accepted, just not with me as the presenter).

If attending doesn't help, what will? How does a person find out about conferences that are looking for speakers?

Posted by: Dori | Mar 22, 2005 4:42:13 PM

I'm Sacha Chua, a 21-year-old geekette from the Philippines. =) I love reading your blog, as I also passionately care about my user community.

I _love_ going to conferences. I started giving talks in 2001 when I was in third-year college. I talked about Linux and Java. I love getting up there in front of the crowd and trying to get an entire hall curious about something. I love connecting with people. And yes, being a young girl into computing has its benefits. I get really appreciative crowds. ;) I've given talks on wearable computing, embedded computing, alternative ways of teaching computer science (this was at an IT education conference even though I was just a freshly minted teacher! =D ), personal information management... all of my weird little hobbies give me something to talk about. Now I regularly get invited to do advocacy talks at local open source conferences. A recent milestone: my first free flight to a conference! Yay! My next goal: speak at an international conference! =D

I love attending other people's talks and learning not only about the topic they're presenting but also how they're presenting it. Many of my conference notes are about how effective speakers are or interesting tricks I can pick up for my own presentations.

Public speaking changed me and is continuing to make my life more fun. I used to be very shy in grade school and high school. The first few presentations helped me find out that talking about geeky things I liked was not only fun but useful, and I strongly encourage people to talk about what they're interested in as well. It's a fantastic experience. =)

I'm perfectly at home in tech conferences, and I _love_ the social interaction that goes on at those things. Chatting with attendees before and after the talks, having lunch and dinner with other speakers and organizers... Way cool.

Definitely something I'd recommend for other people--guys and girls alike.

Posted by: Sacha Chua | Mar 22, 2005 8:38:03 PM

This is the first ETech I did NOT go to (and I also went to the O'Reilly P2P & Web Services conferences that ended up morphing into ETech too). This year I decided it was just way too pricey all things considered. It's still my favorite tech conf though.

At last year's ETech, a guy walks up to me at lunch (I was sitting with an Indian woman) and thanks us for being there. I know he had good intentions, but hmmm, I don't usually think of myself as being a token Hispanic woman...but I guess others do.

Posted by: Evelyn Rodriguez | Mar 22, 2005 9:09:10 PM

Kathy, I just re-read your post. I don't know where people get the idea women are not welcome at these conferences. I NEVER get that impression and I used to go to a ton of tech conferences (I'm cutting back).

With ETech specifically, it's a hard conference to justify to your boss unless you are in an interdisciplinary strategic/visionary kind of role - it's not specific skill-building like the SDExpo for instance. I've shelled out the bucks to attend myself all but once (that adds up to forgoing a couple of exotic vacations).

Posted by: Evelyn Rodriguez | Mar 22, 2005 9:17:51 PM

Sacha and Evelyn, thanks SO much for your comments on this. I hear you on the vacation thing Evelyn...
Here's to lifelong learning : )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 22, 2005 10:21:02 PM

Kathy, I appreciate your views on all of this, but even within this topic and comment thread, you use very exclusionary language. What you're basically saying is a lot of "I don't have a problem" "I'm comfortable" "I can do it". And, well, so on.

Then I noticed when Dori responded, you replied with "Dori, you're one of the only people I know with real credibility on this issue, and a lot of experience, so you're also one of those who does make me take another look at things."

Which basically shut down any and all conversation with anyone else.

I find Gillian's comment to be very telling. I remember at the first P2P conferencde a women, in fact I believe a student or associate of Clay Shirky's if I remember correctly, at a table where I sat for lunch, was very competitive with me--as if she couldn't stand having the other men at the table pay attention to another woman. So unfortunately, I haven't necessarily found that all women want more women at conferences.

However, bottom line is: if O'Reilly wants to continue with the "10% or less" female attendance at the conferences, they can assume that it's all a problem of the women, and continue as they are.

And then you will have the bathrooms all to yourself.

Posted by: Shelley | Mar 26, 2005 3:13:33 PM

Hi Shelley, I appreciate your coming here and commenting... and think you made some good points that I need to hear. (FYI -- I made more comments about this in the "interaction" blog where I quoted what you said about participation at SXSW).
I'm not sure I understand the part about "exclusionary" language...I'm definitely saying that *I* don't agree, and this is how *I* feel. There's no other way to express that but to use the "I" word, and I believe it's the most honest thing I can do.
A big part of why I was motivated to make this post in the first place is because I don't appreciate people speaking on my behalf as a woman, with generalizations that make it sound as though "all women feel this way."
So when I hear people make general statements about "women don't feel comfortable", "women feel pushed out", "women want..." etc. I don't believe that they're speaking for me, or "all women", and I believe they're doing a big disservice to women by describing them in what *I* consider a very disempowering way.
This isn't a special case, though -- it's exactly how I feel when, for example, a politician says things like, "the American people want..." or "the American people believe..." I just don't think it's appropriate to speak on behalf of a group unless virtually everyone you're speaking for has selected you as their representative. This happens to be one of my few pet peeves, though, so it pushes a button whenever someone speaks for a "group" to which I belong simply by being female, or American.
My feeling is that it's a lot more productive to frame it as, "women are choosing to not go to these conferences, and it sure would be great for everyone (attendees, conferences hosts, etc.) if we could find ways to make it more interesting and worth their while." Something *positive* as opposed to making it sound like women just can't hack it out there (which I disagree with). I think your comments on your blog about participation at SXSW vs. the passiveness of ETech was a REALLY important one that might be a key... I don't know that for sure, of course, but I thought it was one of the best insights I've heard about this whole thing, and I thank you for getting me to think about that in a much more significant way.
I definitely take your point about my comment about Dori, though. What I meant is that Dori really *is* the only person who I know *personally*, who has a different opinion on this from me, and I respect her a lot. So if Dori claims to have had an experience, then to my mind, that's exactly what happened. There *are* no other women I know personally who have this feeling about it. But I agree that this made it sound like I didn't want to hear from anyone else who I *didn't* already know, since I didn't make it clear that Dori is someone I do know *for real* ; ) as opposed to by reputation or from reading about her online. When I say that she has credibility, I meant that she has "personal credibility" with me. But I didn't qualify that and I should have, since certainly tons of women I don't know have plenty of "professional credibility", like you, for example.
Having said all that, I think Terrie's comment really expressed exactly what I have been feeling about all this:
"Sometimes during the conference it felt like there were two very different ETechs happening -- the one being blogged about by people who weren't there, and the one that I was attending."
I think this is a great conversation/debate to be having, because it WOULD be wonderful to have more diversity at the conferences. But we each have our own way of trying to help make that happen, and mine just happens to be very different from, say, yours. My belief is that the more we tell women they won't like going to these conferences, the worse it gets. I believe in changing things from a bottom-up approach (emphasize the good, and the benefits of going) where others believe in a top-down approach (changing the conference program, getting more women as presenters, etc.). I believe both ends are important, but I REALLY become annoyed when I hear how "women feel..." when it does not begin to describe me -- or more importantly -- a *lot* of other women in IT I know!
Anyway, I'm actually pretty honored that you came here at all, and I appreciate that you've been quite nice about it. I've received some extremely nasty emails privately, from others who share your perspective, but not your willingness to acknowledge that other women might hold different views.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 26, 2005 7:14:31 PM

I love your comments about women at conferences.

I've attended (and presented) at several conferences and I've seen the low attendance by women. I just don't understand it. I love the conferences. They're *fun* and instructive. I love getting to meet people and learn things. I don't understand why other women don't attend. I've been one of those who've suggested trying to get women keynote speakers as a possible way to draw more women, mostly because people ask me and that's the only thing I could think of...

Posted by: Anna Martelli Ravenscroft | May 9, 2005 5:26:00 PM

also love your comments about women at conferences. I've presented many conferences in some of great cities of United States including New York City. "The Wisdom of Crowds" is really excellent.

Voice of USA

Posted by: Elizabeth | Jun 24, 2006 12:36:56 PM

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