Episode 24: Women in tech speak up

August 5, 2013

"The truth is that women face a different judgment from the audience than men do, and a lot of women know that."

- Chrys Wu, co-organizer, <Write/Speak/Code>

If you follow the tech space maybe you read this post last year, which really did the rounds on social media - How I Got 50% Women Speakers at my Tech Conference. The fact is, it's very difficult to get a decent number of women speakers and panelists at a tech conference. Women are a minority in the technology space to begin with, and they're far less visible in the industry than men - not just because there are fewer of them, but because the ones there are tend not to become 'thought leaders' (i.e. write and speak publicly about the industry and gain a huge following in the process) or contribute much to open source software projects. 

Attendees study speaking materials on public speaking day at Write/Speak/Code

But it's not just women in tech who don't 'put themselves out there'. Let's face it, no matter what women do for a living, they're far less likely than men to feel comfortable in any kind of spotlight. The Write/Speak/Code conference set out to change that. Tune in to hear three different voices discussing

  • Why women have trouble saying what we think in a professional context
  • Why it's hard for women to claim expertise (and how to get over that)
  • The importance of speaking in public
  • Bluffing 
  • Why being referred to as a 'woman in technology' is incredibly irritating

 10 minutes. You can read the full transcript for the show below.


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, we drop in on a conference aimed at women in technology. In an early episode of the show we talked about how few women work in technology and why. But for those women who are pursuing careers in tech…it can feel lonely out there. Relatively few women are out in public writing blog posts or op-eds about their subject, or speaking at conferences. Lots of men are doing both.

“The truth is that women face a different judgment from the audience than men do, and a lot of women know that. And they’re not necessarily eager to put themselves up on a stage where the first comment or the first thought amongst the audience is, why are you even up there, what do YOU know?”

Coming up on The Broad Experience.

Earlier this summer I dropped in on a conference for women technologists. It was held in New York and it was called Write/Speak/Code. The idea was to make women in tech who want to be a bit more visible in their industry comfortable with publishing pieces about what they do, speaking in public, and contributing more to open source software. Rebecca Miller Webster is a software developer and it was her idea it was to put on this conference. She told me open source software is a bit like Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, in that anyone can contribute – in this case, they’re contributing code. So why do so few women add anything to open source projects?

“I think there’s a lot of reasons for that…I think the biggest one is that people find it very intimidating, you know, your code is in the open, people see it, they can comment on it, so we’re sort of trying to address a lot of that because at Write/Speak/Code we believe all of these women can speak and contribute to open source so how do we get them to take those next steps...obviously there are systemic reasons for why women don’t participate more, but there are personal reasons as well – we’re socialized not to speak out, you know, as women in tech we’re already sort of an anomaly so you often don’t want to completely draw attention to yourself,  and all of those sorts of things, so we’re trying to address those more personal, emotional reasons.”

I also sat down with Chrys Wu, a co-organizer of the conference. Chrys is a journalist, a coder, and she founded the Hacks/Hackers group in New York, which gets web developers and journalists together.

AM-T: “So could you just expand a little bit on why the women who do work in tech are not very visible?”

“Because there are a lot of reasons it’s a little bit of a hard question to answer. Sometimes the conferences are looking for big names and of course the big names tend to be people who are more senior in a company, which isn’t necessarily a lot of women. Women on the whole don’t make up a lot of the developer population, period. It’s just a ratio thing. It is a big hurdle to overcome. That said there are a lot of women who are working who are not necessarily at the C level or at the director level but know a lot. So the hard part then becomes finding them, just looking for them. That’s one thing…another is…we’re going to need to pause, gather my thoughts…

AM-T: “I know it’s a really multi-faceted beast…”

“It really is…but another reason why you probably don’t see a lot of women speakers is that women on the whole are not really encouraged to come and stand up on stage for example. Um, I mean the truth is that women face a different judgment from the audience than men do and a lot of women know that…and they’re not necessarily eager to put themselves up on a stage where the first comment or the first thought amongst the audience is going to be why are you even up there, what do you know about being an engineer or being a coder? That doesn’t happen everywhere but there is sometimes that perception, so there are women who just don’t want to put themselves in that position. The third thing is there are plenty of women who are really, really smart, have a lot of experience, who know their subject, but just are afraid of public speaking just like everybody else. “

 Fade into sound of class taking place]

 “…sometimes they’ll ask for reviewers’ notes and this is usually where you have an opportunity to say, ‘I think I should talk about this because I’m qualified, this topic is timely, things like that, so especially if you’ve never talked before this can be a really good opportunity to sort of let the reviewer know what your motivations are…”

[Fade out]

I told Chrys Wu that when it comes to talking or writing, it seems so much harder for women to put a stake in the ground regarding our beliefs – whatever we do for a living.

AM-T: “That seems to be something that in general men are better at just putting themselves out there and saying I think this…and, they don’t have any qualms about putting their opinion out there in the world, whereas women are much likelier to sort of second guess ourselves and think, well who am I to say that or do that?”

“Yeah, for sure. And that’s one of the things that we’re helping these women overcome. And it’s not just through the workshops. But you know this morning - today is our speak day, it’s all about public speaking and we had a panel of four women developers who answered that very question. And they said you know, honestly, like, men bluff it all the time – as a woman, we tend to be more modest in our thinking…

AM-T: And a bit more purist, like…I can’t bluff it – you can’t bluff things!”

“Exactly, exactly, but the truth is that what you need to know to give a talk or to write about something is to assimilate the information and be confident about what you’re talking about. In the case of public speaking they were saying even if it’s something you just learned, the fact you now know it it gives you the authority to talk about it and explain it to other people.”

“Sounds simple but for a lot of us feeling like an expert on something was part of, I guess part of the journey we were trying to get through at this conference…”

That’s Aimee Simone – she’s a software developer at a tech startup in Orlando, Florida, who came up to New York for the conference. She says the instructors actually had the women practice stating that they were an expert in something, out loud, in front of the class. They had to say their name, what they did for a living, and then finally say what they were an expert in and why.

“It was hard for people to say that they were an expert in anything. That was something we had to say a few times with help from the instructors. So that was what contributed most to my confidence level when I left.”

She is an expert in Ruby on Rails, a programming language.

Whether she likes it or not.

Part of the reason Aimee came to Write/Speak/Code was to improve her speaking skills…although she’d already taken the plunge and spoken at a big Ruby on Rails conference earlier this year – Ruby on Rails is a programming language.

So how did that feel?

“Oh, I was terrified. Afterwards though I felt like I was floating on a cloud. I was just so happy, partially that it was over, because the couple of weeks leading up to it were pretty stressful…”

As they tend to be when any big event looms. She’d always thought, maybe I’ll speak at a conference someday…

“Which, some day is a dangerous phrase because it usually doesn’t come. I didn’t trip and fall on my face, and I remembered everything I was going to say. Some people even came up at the end to talk to me. It was really different – a really different experience being on the other side of the conference presentation.”

One she hopes to repeat with the skills and confidence she acquired during Write/Speak/Code.

Finally, I asked Chrys Wu about something that bugs a lot of women in technology – being spoken about specifically as…women in technology…

“I mean personally I struggle with this a lot as well, this notion of OK, so you’re a woman, you’ve got to be out there and be an example, pave a path and all this other stuff… It’s just, but why, you know? [laughs] I do this because I like it and not because of my gender. Obviously I recognize that I’m a woman and other people do too, but I don’t want people to think about it in the context of oh, a woman did this, which somehow makes it weird and different. So I kind of do fall into that category of women who work in technology who are just like, I’m normal.  Right, exactly, I just happen to do this: focus on my work and not the shape of my body or my gender. But that said, because I am, I’m also a non-white person, right? I also understand the need and the historical importance of people who are not the norm putting themselves out there and taking whatever comes, both the bad and the good.”

Chrys Wu, who helped organize the Write/Speak/Code conference.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can comment on this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page.

The Broad Experience is supported by the Mule Radio Syndicate, which hosts a whole collection of podcasts, including Here Be Monsters, Running from the Law…and Everything Sounds.

This will be the last show for a few weeks – I’m taking a break to do some teaching and to work on gathering interviews for new shows. I’ll see you in September.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.