Ladylike speakers

Meg Hourihan wrote a comment in Liz’s post about her own speaking experiences, and that her main reason for doing so is to increase the presence of women speaking at these conferences. I commend her for this, but her words did trigger a second bugaboo I have about women at conferences – we tend to be ’safe’. Or at least, my definition of ’safe’.

I wrote the following in comments at Liz’s in response to Meg’s discussion about her own presentation experience:

But Meg, and this is difficult to figure out how to say without causing offense, you�re an ideal woman presenter for many of the conferences you discuss. You�re the right demographic and you�re inherently non-controversial. This isn�t to say that you�re not a good speaker and have something important to say � you do or you wouldn�t keep getting invited back. But it is to say that you�ve learned how to be a woman in the system.

I look at the male speakers at the conferences i used to attend, and I have attended more than a few. (I was one of the few women speakers at that P2P conference you reference.) There were the guys in the suits and the quiet geeks, but the speakers that made an impression were controversial and flaming and full of passion and right in your face. They jump out at you, bigger than life. They get into loud discussions with each other in panels and they swing their arms about and they speak with a zeal about their subject.

They reach off the stage and grab you by the throat. And you never forget.

And then I look at the women presenters � dignified is what comes to mind. Not to mention appropriately dressed. Powerpoint presentation. Occassional panel moderator. Most frequently co-presenting with a guy.

I would settle for women making up only 10% of the speakers, if they stood out, broke the rules, made an impression. Shook the audience up to the point where all the �blogging it live� folks come away saying �Wow! Did you see_____!� �I can�t believe what she said!�

Does no good to be there, if no one remembers us.

So to me its not that the women are making up such smaller numbers of presenters (though that�s bothersome); it�s that they aren�t making a lasting impression when they are speaking.

I haven�t heard you speak Meg, so you could very well be one of these who makes a huge impression. And I can�t imagine Liz playing it safe if she were to speak at a conference. Or to be shy about grabbing the audience by the *****.

So the battle rages on two fronts: more women speakers (and attendees); and blasting the stereotype of the tech conference woman speaker.

But I’m beginning to wonder if my problem isn’t so much women speakers, as I don’t understand the new breed of woman technologists. I find myself identifying more with male technologists than the younger women.

This isn’t directed at any person, as much as this is a general ramble, but it seems to me that the woman associated with conferences are the supporting actors rather than the leads. Panel moderators rather than panel members. This leaves me wondering if women are falling into a stereotype of ‘woman presenter’, or if I’m indulging in my own stereotypes when I view them?

What, or I should say, who I remember at conferences are the people who are passionate. They make bold statements, and issue controversial proclamations, not to generate buzz, but because they want to push the edges of the technology they love. Even when all they’re doing is demonstrating a product, their enthusiasm shines through like a polished butt reflecting moonlight in a dark bathroom.

Whatever they are, and whatever they talk about, they are not supporting actors.

Taking a general stereotype and applying in this specific instance: At conferences, I have heard men being referred to ‘god like’ when it comes to their intelligence and ability, but women referred to ‘god like’ (or ‘goddess like’) only when it comes to their appearance and mannerisms. But where does the problem lie? With the speakers, or with the audience?

The few women speakers I’ve seen at technical conferences just don’t seem to invoke passion in their topics. Now, I’m not talking Steve Ballmer doing the Monkey Dance kind of passion – no woman would ever do that (red cape!). I’m talking about women speakers making a significant impact on the audience. I’m talking about attendees coming away from the conference and going, “Boy, that talk by ________ was worth the cost of the conference!”

But, is this just me? Am I falling into the trap of following a male mindset stereotype that states a ‘good speaker’ at a technical conference must be part Larry Wall and part Scott McNealy, with a touch of Clay Shirky thrown in? Gods of Innovation, Controversy, and Uncompromising Passion?

Women are traditionally more focused on implemention than invention, on practical rather than profound in technology. And in our industry, we need more practical implementation – the dot-com era demonstrated the folly of too much reliance on improbable dreams backed by impossible technology.

But we wish for the improbable and we worship the impossible.

At tech conferences, or at least the ones I used to attend, the focus is on the profound and the innovative, rather than on the prosaic and useful. We tend to remember the former over the latter. Women speakers do tend to talk about the prosaic and useful; by saying, ‘women need to stand out more, speak up more, be controversial – blaze a trail!’ am I denying my own gender’s contributions, not only at conferences, but in technology, itself?

I wonder how many more proposals a conference would get from women speakers, just by changing the word ‘innovative’ to ‘useful’ wherever it occurs in the conference description.

Way too many questions. I need a walk.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email