rmurphey Adventures in JavaScript

jQuery Conference Breakout Session: Women & Conferences

19 Oct 2010 edit

I decided to organize a breakout session about women and conferences at the jQuery Conference in Boston this past weekend, and I couldn't be happier about how it went -- it was probably one of the more productive sessions of its sort that I've participated in.

My best guess, with the help of some t-shirt size numbers from the most-amazing Leah Silber, is that the conference attendees were about 10% women. This sounds a bit terrible, but on the contrary, looking around the room, I felt like women were in fact more represented than I'm accustomed to at other JavaScript-centric conferences.

In setting up the breakout session, I wanted to do two things: one, applaud the women who did show up, because they are already part of the solution; two, (at the risk of sounding a bit lame), call upon them to be the change that so many of us want to see at tech conferences.

I started the session with a small intro/lecture/rant: when we have these conversations, we're talking about a conference for an open-source project, and this means that we -- community members -- need to take some ownership of the problem if we want to see more diversity on stage; it shouldn't just be up to the project or the conference organizers. I've talked to plenty of jQuery team members, and the problem is certainly not that they are seeking to exclude non-white-male speakers, nor that they are insensitive to the issue; to the contrary, they are incredibly interested in diversifying their lineup, but they're somewhat at a loss as to where to find people who would be good speakers. My call to action to the people in attendance was to be part of the solution.

My favorite part about the session was that it didn't turn into a big bitchfest -- I think there was actually some productive discussion that took place. While the attendees were mostly women, there was a solid contingent of men. Menno van Slooten, in particular, was great -- he talked about his experience as a relative outsider whose boss pressured him into submitting a talk to the Bay Area jQuery Conference earlier this year. His talk at that conference ended up being so well received that he was back to speak in Boston.

At some point during the session, I realized that John Resig was sitting across from me. I don't want sound like a giddy schoolgirl here -- John's just a person, and I don't want to sound like he graced us with his benevolent presence -- but I can't tell you how much I think it changed the dynamic of the discussion to know that it was being heard by such an influential representative. John answered questions directly and honestly, and there was a serious sense that he was hearing feedback too -- we weren't just talking amongst ourselves. His presence dispelled any sense that the project wasn't interested in the topic; I'd encourage other prominent people who care about these things to make time to take part in similar conversations.

I was kind of amazed to hear how simple the questions were about speaking at a jQuery conference. I have given great credence to issues of anxiety, shyness, and perceived inadequacy -- and I don't think these issues have gone away -- but it never occurred to me that people had really basic questions about the process of speaking at a conference. This was actually sort of great -- while I can't singlehandedly get a potential speaker to overcome a sense of anxiety or inadequacy, there were so many questions that could be answered simply and directly.

To that end, I'm working on a FAQ for potential speakers at future jQuery conferences, addressing basic questions about process, etc., that I hope the project will incorporate into future calls for speakers. As a decently connected member of the jQuery community, I know who to ask when I have these questions, but I naively didn't realize how inaccessible the answers could seem to "outsiders." Explaining the answers to basic questions is the sort of easy but meaningful effort that a conference can make to lower the barriers to new speakers, women or men. This should be a no-brainer for any conference that wants to its lineup to be interesting, fresh, and diverse.

Another idea that we talked about was pairing accepted speakers up with a buddy of sorts. I have tried to be this buddy, informally, to people who are speaking for the first time, but I think it could be worthwhile to formalize the process. New speakers could ask their "buddy" questions about what it's like to speak, how to prepare, what to expect from the audience, etc. The speaker would be more prepared and comfortable, and the audience would get a better presentation.

There was a tremendous lack of clarity surrounding what's actually involved in submitting a talk to a conference. While I'm by no means a grizzled veteran of the conference circuit -- my first major talk was just a year ago -- my experience so far is that submitting a talk is mostly about having a well-articulated idea and some semblance of evidence that you can pull it off. This, perhaps, is where the process becomes most subjective and biased toward "insiders" -- people known to give good talks are likely to get the opportunity to give talks again -- but I think there's plenty of room to overcome any bias. People who have made a point of participating in the community, people who have made a point of contributing useful content about their chosen topic, will generally get the benefit of the doubt. Reaching out to a past speaker, or to an established community member, can be a great help in shepherding your talk through the process. Again, I'm hoping that the FAQ can address some of this low-hanging fruit.

Regarding jQuery conferences in particular, John made the very good point that there is a lot of room for talks that aren't specifically about jQuery. There were actually lots of these sorts of talks at the conference this weekend -- talks about TDD, HTML5, object-oriented CSS, CouchDB, and more. One of the lovely things about the jQuery and JavaScript community is that community members have a potentially wide area of interest -- any topic related to front-end development is likely to be relevant to the audience. John pointed out that talks about these tangential topics may be one of the greatest opportunities for newcomers to the world of speaking: the speaker is likely to be the only one presenting on the topic, and can potentially establish themselves as something of a subject matter expert on the topic.

Again, this was one of the more productive conversations I've participated in on this topic. If you'd like to talk to me about it more, don't hesitate to drop me an email or a tweet or a comment. If you're considering venturing into the speaking world, I'm happy to talk with you about that too. Thanks to everyone who came, and especially to Ruthie BenDor for her support, and I look forward to continued discussion.