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Gender and conferences, yet again

WebDU was on in Sydney last week. I didn’t go along, although several of my colleagues did. I thought about going, but we’re really busy this period of the year. I also feel slightly bad because I also went to Web Directions South in September (pictures from that conference above), and poor Dave doesn’t get to go to the developer conference for his development platform of choice because it costs more for entrance alone than both WebDU and Web Directions put together.

I did go to three MXDU conferences in previous years, and enjoyed them very much. However, if I had to pick one conference only to go to, it would be Web Directions (and in fact that has been the case these past two years). My reasons are varied:

  • Web Directions covers a wider range of technologies that I can actually use, and I like the fact that web standards and accessibility underlie everything else that is discussed. The conference is no longer about best practises in web development – everything that is presented assumes best practises to start with. My kinda people.
  • The speakers are the rock stars of the web world – people I am really excited about meeting, listening to, and hanging out with. People like Molly Holzschlag, Derek Featherstone, Doug Bowman, Andy Clarke, Kelly Goto, Jeff Veen, and Eric Meyer. And that’s just some of the internationals – there are plenty of Australian luminaries as well. I can’t get as excited about the WebDU speakers. Perhaps because I’m not a Flash/Flex developer.
  • There is an incredibly strong feeling of community and togetherness. At both Web Essentials in 2005 and Web Directions in 2006, I have really felt like I was part of something amazing. My circle of colleagues and friends has expanded each year, and these are people I continue to communicate with. I didn’t really get that from MXDU.

I just read a post on Gary’s blog about Sexism at WebDU. It’s an interesting read – and I must say I’m quite surprised. I didn’t really see or hear anything similar in the years that I attended the conference, and I know that Geoff Bowers usually runs a very tight ship. However, I can easily believe the kinds of things that Gary and Katrina are reporting – the “boy’s club” mentality is evident in any kind of IT-related event, and the more developer-centric the event, the stronger the bias tends to be.

I remember arranging to meet up with an online colleague at MXDU – the exchange went something like:
Him: I’ll be the tall guy with glasses, wearing a red t-shirt.
Me: I’m female – more than likely I’ll be the only one.

While that wasn’t strictly true – there were a couple of other women, including presenters, although most weren’t ColdFusion developers – we were definitely in the vast, vast minority. Being from the far western end of the continent enhanced the feeling of being outside of the clique.

After reading Gary and Katrina’s posts, I’m looking deeper into my decision to skip WebDU and go to Web Directions instead. I think I’ve realised what it is: even though the male:female ratio still strongly favours the male side, the atmosphere at Web Directions feels friendlier and more inclusive. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s definitely there.

I hope that Daemon take this kind of feedback seriously and do something about it for next year.

Much has been said in web standards circles lately about the lack of female presenters, and what can be done to encourage women to be more vocal in their participation, while not including under-qualified speakers for gender equity’s sake. I don’t really have any answers. I feel I’m doing something positive with our local Web Women networking group – helping to provide a small amount of community support for local women in web development. If every town and city did something similar – and I know many are – surely things will start to improve.

Update: anyone else who went to WebDU care to comment? Did you see or hear anything that made you uncomfortable or that you thought was in questionable taste?

45 Comments

  1. The Port80, AWIA, and Web Women events that I have attended have all been held in a supportive, friendly and professional way.
    As for the Web Directions conference I took the lovely inclusive atmosphere for granted!

  2. @rosemary – that’s what I used to think, but undercurrent of the male attitude at webDU07 was just not on. I don’t think Geoff was really aware it was happening either.

  3. Pingback: Man with no blog : » Sexism at WebDU - Gary Barber

  4. Kay, its worth looking at the Day One keynote adverts. It adds a degree of context to the comments being made.
    http://video.onflex.org/2007/03/22/webdu-day-1-cartoons-from-nectarine/

  5. Hi Kay,

    I went along to WebDU this year for my first time, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I didn’t feel any of the sexism that’s being discussed. There were not many females, and the ones I spoke to seemed to be designers. I did meet another female ColdFusion developer from New Zealand and we switched contacts because it was soo nice to know there are others out there!

    As I said this was my first WebDU and I have not been to Web Directions so I cant comment on how it compares, but I learnt stuff, made some contacts and generally had a fun time, soo to me it was ALL GOOD!

    Cheers
    Christine

  6. Hi Geoff and Christine – obviously I wasn’t there so I can’t comment on WebDU 2007. However, the fact remains that at least two community members who also frequent other conferences – one male, one female – felt a sexist undertone and were were moved enough to blog about it. I think that points to a significant issue and is not something that should be ignored or swept under the carpet.

  7. Obviously we have different definitions of the word “significant”. We have one person who has blogged about it, of which some of the so called examples of sexism being ridiculous (a cartoon about washing powder, talk about twisting something to suit an agenda).

    Then we have Gary Barber jumping on the bandwagon someone who has made numerous posts about women and their lack of representation at conferences well before he even came to webDU. He now makes unsubstantiated claims about so called sexist comments he allegedly overheard in private conversations. I can’t help but believe he had an agenda to push and has conveniently conjured up some unsubstantiated facts to further push this.

    This is my third conference and what i find incredulous is the majority of conversations I was in were geeky enough to actually be about the subject at hand. Maybe creepy people attract creepy people.

    In any case I do not find this to be a “significant” representation of the people who attended (which included my wife).

  8. Deri – I’ve read your comments on Gary’s blog as well, and you’re changing the entire character of this discussion. We’re trying to examine the issue and you’ve started insulting people. Ad hominem attacks signal the end of any conversation as far as I’m concerned – and do nothing but undermine your argument – so please don’t bother commenting again.

  9. I’d wager the audience is simply different all round. I could argue the amount of conferences i’ve been in the past 2 months has had different scales of women from both local to international.

    WebDU isn’t also known widely overall, I mean the Adobe developer world found within blog aggregators like MXNA are pretty much the bulk of the viral marketing. Web Directions has its own world of marketing around it.

    I’d wager two things here:

    – It comes down to both conferences and how they market to a segmented audience. Females or Males be damned, its a matter of appealing to both genders touchpoints through press, events and so forth.

    – Women in IT are an entirely seperate issue and blaming conferences are a weak argument at best. As in order to that, then why didn’t you speak Kay? You don’t strike me as somone being shy? – probably because of financial reasons or better yet, you didn’t want to. Freedom of choice is a funny thing and its easy to say to the organisers “You didn’t work hard enough to recruit women to the cause” – and to be honest, knowing the grief Geoff goes to i’m suprised he hasn’t responded with “I didn’t have time to organise the current speaker lists, let alone recruit gender specific”.

    It then begs the question about sexual preferences and how they could play a role in conferences and IT sector. I know quite a lot of IT environments that berate gay men and so one could easily lump that as being unfair in terms of ration of speakers.

    It could also be a simple case of merit based selection and the number of female volunteers weren’t there.

    Sorry, I’ll support any cause that promotes equality but in thise case of the WebDU Sexism thing, I think its an entirely seperate agenda being hidden deep within the WebDU as its launch vechile.

    Unfair.

  10. Hi Kay,

    As the creators of the animation that Katrina’s found objectionable, we’ve made a comment on her blog that (hopefully level-headedly!) explains why we’re surprised by the sexism label.

    But that’s not what I want to focus on here. It’s this:
    “just read a post on Gary’s blog about Sexism at WebDU. It’s an interesting read – and I must say I’m quite surprised. I didn’t really see or hear anything similar in the years that I attended the conference, and I know that Geoff Bowers usually runs a very tight ship. However, I can easily believe the kinds of things that Gary and Katrina are reporting “.

    I’m a bit surprised that you end up giving two posts (which have conflicting positions about the level of sexism in the animations and the WebJam) more credence than your own personal experience.

    I’m not denying that sexism is an issue, and that the level of female participation could be greater. But as you noted, Geoff (and Julie!!) run a tight ship.They put out a wide call for papers. Bek from Nectarine couldn’t present this year, and they only had two other submissions from females (neither of whom were previous female speakers). So part of the solution is for more great female developers to present their work!

    I certainly understand all the other reasons you like Web Directions as someone who’s not a Flash/Flex dev. Conversely, it’s because I am that I enjoy that focus!

    But I found the fact that the main thrust of your post was a gender/sexism issue based on someone else’s opinion, and overriding your own experience, a little disturbing. Isn’t it worth doing a little more investigating before writing off a great conference? If you’ve been previously impressed by Geoff and Julie’s efforts, wouldn’t it be worth dropping them a line before posting publicly? Guess I was just never a fan of the Salem Witch trials ;-)

    All right, that’s my 2c. I’m off to make sure people realise that we had our tongues firmly in cheek with our animations, and that people understand that a kid smoking five FlashLite ciggies at once won’t make him 80% faster, stronger and cooler; FlashOs cereal doesn’t actually come with a free boombox; Flex won’t transform you into a musclebound hunk of homoerotic hotness (sorry guys); and that Cold Fusion won’t make you a blood-crazed housewife…

  11. Scott, you’re accusing me of putting a lot more into my post than I actually did!

    Minty, Gary is a member of the Perth community and I consider him a friend as well as a colleague. Katrina is someone I met at Web Directions. I have great respect for both of them and have no reason to disbelieve anything they say.

    What it comes down to is that if some attendees were uncomfortable about perceived sexism at the conference that points to a problem. Rather than loudly denying that anyone could possibly be offended by anything, perhaps Geoff should ask those that dared to speak up about specifically what the problem was, and take steps to ensure that similar things don’t happen in future.

    As for accusing me of participating in some kind of witch trial, it’s a public discussion. I haven’t attacked anyone, unlike some of the commenters here and on Gary’s blog (I believe he’s closed comments due to the abusive messages). I was hoping to stimulate some constructive discussion. I should know better :)

  12. Oh, and also Minty, for the record: I watched the video of Nectarine’s animation and chuckled. I showed it to a colleague – a ColdFusion and Flash developer – and he thought it was in poor taste for a professional conference. Katrina didn’t like it, while Gary thought it was funny, in the context it was intended. So I think you’re going to find different opinions on that kind of thing.

    What I find more interesting is the things that Gary is saying about attitudes of speakers. I haven’t had a chance to corner him at the pub and get a more detailed report of what he was offended by, but I will do that because now I want to know. That is the kind of thing that changes the atmosphere of an event, and that’s the kind of thing that organisers really need to watch out for.

  13. Hi,
    Sorry to jump into this, but I wandered over after following this debate via other sources. I wasn’t at WebDU, but I’ve followed the discussion, and know Rowlirowl well. And it seems like this is a significant debate, in that the issue of women in IT matters, and any discussion which may assist in improving gender equality within the field is going to be worth having. Plus I really liked Kay’s post,.
    Anyway, just a couple of minor points from my perspective. First off: Minty, while I can see where you’re coming from, the core problem is that (so far) three people felt offended by what they saw as sexism at WebDU. And sexism is very much in the eye of the beholder – if they felt offended, then they were. We can debate whether or not we also feel offended, or whether or not something should or should not have been done anyway (such as the animations – I can see a good argument that no one was aware anyone would be offended, or that offending people is always a risk with humour), but I think we have to accept that offence was caused. So, at least in my case, I personally don’t see that I need to talk to organisers about whether or not there was a problem – there clearly was for three people. I would talk to the organisers if I wanted to understand the extent of the problem, but that isn’t my main concern.
    My actual interest is with some comments made by both Scott and Minty. Whenever the issue of not having a fair representation of women in conferences shows up, the conference organisers quite rightly say that they did their best – they advertised, but they didn’t get submissions from women. While I accept that they did their best – indeed, I’m convinced that this would be the case – the fact remains that for some reason a higher percentage of women chose not to be involved than did men. And that says not that the organiser didn’t try, but that there is an underlying issue that should be addressed. Thus I’d be asking if the manner by which people are invited to present is flawed (and the model described by Geoff elsewhere looks, at first glance, like it will tend to favour a status quo); or if there is a problem with the reputation of the conference amongst women (perceived sexism, as described by others, could be doing this) or, indeed, all conferences; or perhaps there is a problem in the way in which the conference is advertised. I’d even be willing to examine a claim that the industry is such that it doesn’t encourage women to be involved with professional conferences, and that there is nothing organisers can directly do (but indirectly? Maybe – it seems to me that industry conferences should be addressing this problem in how they present women, if nothing else). But I’m uncomfortable with suggesting it is the fault of women for not choosing to attend, as that seems like too easy an out. Not to mention bad business.
    Adam.

  14. Hi Kay and Adam,

    I’m glad to see this discussion heading along reasonably level-headed lines!

    Rather than loudly denying that anyone could possibly be offended by anything, perhaps Geoff should ask those that dared to speak up about specifically what the problem was
    Where is the loud denial? My comments explicitly (here and elsewhere) state that sexism is an issue. Hey, as someone with a brilliant female dev partner, I’m at least aware vaguely of the situation ;-) Geoff and Julie have openly asked Katrina and Gary to contact them to deal with this. It’s just that once things are posted, they’re public. And accusations of running an inherently sexist conference are a hard label to drop at anyone’s door, let alone two people who I think work very hard to put on a conference that I really enjoy.

    As Adam noted, “sexism is very much in the eye of the beholder”. It’s a personal issue. Which is why I feel it could of at least started as a personal comment to the organisers on the day, and which may have been more effective too. Hey, if there was no joy there, then by all means go public. But as I understand it, the only direct request from Katrina was for free entry into the banquet dinner (which, ironically, included a pair of Kath and Kim impersonators as entertainment, that seemed in general to be accepted as parody, despite some lap-dancing and Kimmy boob-thrusting. Whew!)

    Kay: As for accusing me of participating in some kind of witch trial, it’s a public discussion. I haven’t attacked anyone
    I certainly wasn’t going that far (hence the smiley face). But once you post something that values other blog comments above your own personal experience, before you even touch base with Geoff (or Julie!) whom you feel runs a tight ship, then it’s trial by media. It leads to things like Adam’s comment:
    the core problem is that (so far) three people felt offended.
    Well, if that’s Katrina, Gary and Kay, then Kay’s talking about something she didn’t personally experience, and Gary didn’t have the same issues with the animation or Webjam as Katrina. So we’re down to perhaps 1.5. It’s a small but important difference, because once it’s three, it can be six. Or twelve. Or more than the number of actual attendees, if more people place their faith in Katrina’s post than their own personal experiences!

    I guess I just want the focus to go back to the issue, rather than be centred on second-hand experience or one particular conference. People seem (as per Adam’s comment) to accept that Geoff and Julie tried to increase the percentage of female participation, but feel their model might be flawed. So far, there’s been no realistic suggestions of how to increase this. I was careful to say that part of the solution is for more women to submit; but Adam’s suggestion that I was laying all the blame on women themselves is wrong.

    I would like things to change for the better as much as anyone. In the end, however, I’m a man, and short of something along the transgender lines, I’m personally not going to raise the female demographic. The best I can see is to actively call for women to submit and lead from the front, and ask others to spread the word about doing the same. I say this on a personal level; I have no involvement with the running of WebDU, other than the animations.

    I’d again say that if you experience sexism at a conference, talk then and there to the organisors first. That’s most effective; in WebDU’s case, Geoff, Julie, Vanessa or Erietta were widely available. Then post second if you have no joy (or post positively if you do!).

    As far as the animations, we do a lot of comedy and parody, and we expect some flack. We believe that it’s possible to take the piss without being inherently offensive (the ability to laugh at 50s stereotypes, for example, because things have moved on so far). I’m confident in our work, but if you have a gander at the comments on Katrina’s blog, you’ll see that the laughs continue: people are seeing things that aren’t even there (“2-3 toasts in front of a woman’s breasts”)! Still, I live in hope that the central, serious issue won’t get lost in the periphery and urban legend…

    Cheers
    Minty Hunter
    Nectarine

  15. Hi Minty,

    Me again. I hope there’s no problem with having this debate here – I don’t think an LJ account is the right place, though, and – once again – I liked the approach Kay made with her original post. Just to clarify a couple of things:

    Rowlirowl (sorry – it is a habit that I’d rather not break. If someone posts under their LJ pseudonym, I tend to attach their comments to that pseudonym) was very clear about why she posted, and I think she was very reasonable about it. She felt, as she put it:

    “I think it is important, that I as a female in the IT world, blog about my experiences at WebDU, particularly after the discussions of late concerning women in conferences, both attending and presenting.”

    I liked this disclaimer, as she made it clear that she was posting about her personal experiences. So while I agree it might have been better in one sense for her to just quietly mention the problems to the organizers, I can still see why she chose to discuss things on LJ. I should add that as the issue has had considerable public discussion in recent months, a public account of her experiences seems reasonable in furthering the discussion.

    Beyond that, though, I don’t see anything else about her as relevant to the debate – what matters is that people were offended, irrespective of who they were. If we go beyond that and talk about the nature or perceived agendas of those who were offended, we run the risk of being guilty of compounding the problem. (And here I’m specifically thinking of Deri).

    Just to clarify the “three people” reference, I was referring to Rowlirowl, Greg and Sherif, all of whom expressed concerns as WebDU delegates on Rowlirowl’s journal. I didn’t count Kay, for the reasons you’ve outlined.

    Anyway, as to more constructive issues. :) The problem with these debates it is that it is easy to misread comments as personal attacks, when no one intended them that way, as the debate is so emotional. That makes them very hard to hold, so I hope it is clear that nothing I say is meant to be an accusation.

    So my hassle, even with the claim that “part of the solution is for more women to submit”, is that it seems to me that the claim is looking at the symptom. The problem isn’t that there is a lack of female presenters. That’s the symptom. The problem is that women aren’t submitting. So the solution is not to get more women to submit, but to address why they don’t. It is a subtle difference, but as an academic I live for subtle differences. And it does make a big difference to how the debate is addressed.

    So at this point, I’d be looking at three issues: how can the call for submissions be improved; how can the perception women have of these conferences be improved (noting that I find Kay’s comment, “However, I can easily believe the kinds of things that Gary and [Rowlirowl] are reporting”, to be telling); and how can the conferences lead the way in the presentation of women in the industry.

    Actually, if you don’t mind, as this is Kay’s blog I’d like to return to her post. My feeling is that Kay has expressed concern with how welcoming some conferences feel, and that this general concern means that she could accept Rowlirowl’s and Gary’s comments, even though she respected the organizers. (I hope I’m reading this right, Kay). This suggests to me that there is a problem with how the conferences are perceived. In addition, Rowlirowl has said that she didn’t feel safe and welcomed at WebDU. I don’t know Kay, but my understanding (supported by comments here) is that she knows what she’s doing, so I’m very willing to accept that if she says that she sees a problem, then there may well be a problem. I do know Rowlirowl, and I trust her to speak openly and honestly. So combining the two makes me want to look at the environment at these conferences to confirm whether or not their perceptions have a more general basis which can be addressed. I’d particularly like to find out more about this side of things.

    Adam.

  16. Hey Adam,

    All good points and I think we’re essentially in agreement.

    I made note in my original comment on Rowlirowl’s blog that I couldn’t speak to some of her points because I wasn’t in those particular sessions, and that I knew she may well have a valid point. However, I still feel that while it’s fine to blog your feelings, but in something so personal, it would have been good to make the personal approach first.

    I also feel that people have mentioned entirely valid sexism concerns, but it has been far to heavily linked directly to WebDU and Geoff and Julie as organisers. Gary took them to task for not controlling the private conversation of attendees. He called the single female speaker (from a submission range of two) “frankly disgusting”. His blog entry is “Sexism and WebDU”. All of this seems too much to lay at the feet of a single conference, one that seems to have support from at least a reasonable slice of the (small) female attendees, including Kay.

    And if you check out the further comments in RowliRowl’s blog, you’ll see we’re being lambasted for drawing a cartoon woman with breasts at all, regardless of context.

    Kay, I’ll sign out now. As Adam notes, it is after all, your blog :) But I would ask that we guide the conversation towards measures that will have a positive effect for the industry, rather than targeting one particular conference which seems to have a fairly good track record. Geoff and Julie aren’t big corporate, cash-grabbing exploiters, and I’m sure they’ll take things on board and be part of moving things forward.

    And we’ll keep trying to take the piss in positive ways with our animations…

  17. Minty, Kay, Adam

    First of just a little clarification – I didn’t take Geoff and Julie to task for not controlling the private conversation of attendees. Frankly I ignored attendee comments, which for the most part were okay.

    But at a conference there are two levels of people, the attendees and the speakers. The speakers while at any conference (in the conference space) need to behave like industry leaders. I know it’s a tall order. But there is some responsibility that comes with standing at that podium. A little professionalism is in order. That’s all I’m asking for.

    For the record some aspects of the “Hubby Email” app at the Webjam made me uncomfortable, but that’s the nature of the webjam it’s an open mic. If you go along you have to take the good with the bad.

    I still stand by the fact that the web stream could have been leverage better with more a greater percentage of talented non male presenters of which there are a good number in Australia.

    It’s just most of them may not have even know WebDU was looking for speakers outside of Flex/Flash/ColdFusion arena. Problem maybe that WebDU (ex MX) has a reputation of only being for the Flex/Flash/ColdFusion segment of the web Industry. As I have pointed out several times, this was a minor point.

  18. Gary: I didn’t take Geoff and Julie to task for not controlling the private conversation of attendees.

    If I published a post entitled ‘Sexism and Radharc’ and wrote:
    “Comments made by a Radharc client about women to me was just as disgusting. The room was just a male testosterone fest at some points. It was the level and type of sexism that would not be tolerated in a professional workplace. So why should it be tolerated at a professional web dev premises?”

    Then I would expect that you would feel a little singled out, and that you might think I was pushing the responsibility for someone’s private, individual conversations on to you. And I’ve only slightly tweaked your real words to create the quote above.

    You might not have intended to take Geoff and Julie to task, but if you title something ‘Sexism and WebDU’ and take a good, objective read of your post, I’d find it difficult to believe that you really can’t see how you’re are linking Geoff and Julie conference with sexism.

  19. @minty honestly, what you like me to do pull the post entirely, it was just an honest assessment of what I saw and heard. You may not like the passion of the words. But there was a sexist undercurrent.

    Tell me if you where a vendor at a conference and one of your sales team was making sexist comments, would you pull them up on it. Or would you let it ride. It reflects back on your company. Do you take the responsibility for the actions of your team. Or because they where not at your booth, but still at the conference 9-5 it’s all okay.

    So hence the speakers at a conference reflect back on the conference itself. Not the organisers, but the conference as a whole. Because of the close nature of the WebDU community people seem to associate webDU with Geoff and Julie. From an outsiders view it is not like that.

    The point is people are getting side tracked on dissecting my post word by word, and not looking at the nature of the problem. Or is it the case that people don’t believe the problem exists, or just want to avoid it.

    Maybe it would be better if next time I just smile at the sexist comments and add one of my own to be “one of the boys”.

    As an outsider i did notice it, It did leave me a little uneasy by the end of day two. I suppose people are going to quote the usual “why didn’t other people notice”, well I don’t know the answer to that one.

  20. @ Gary, I’m not asking for the post to be pulled. Nor am I trying to get sidetracked from the problem. In none of my comments have I denied that sexism and the small female demographic of our industry is an issue.

    The problem for me is that so much of this seems to be being laid at WebDU’s feet. WebDU isn’t run by a big corporate: it’s very much a personal project by Geoff and Julie. So when you try to make a distinction between the critising the conference with phrases like “frankly disgusting” and “male testosterone fest”, as opposed to Geoff and Julie per se, it’s a very long bow to draw to say that the two are so separate.

    If WebDU was a conference with a history of barring female speakers, a litany of sexism complaints and an unfriendly atmosphere, fair enough. But to the best of my knowledge, the polar opposite is true. Kay’s personal experiences seem to uphold this, and so do the previous female speakers and attendees I’ve personally spoken to.

    I have no problem with RowliRowl voicing her concerns either. But it would seem that if she felt comfortable enough talking to conference staff about trying to get free entry into the dinner banquet _during_ the conference, then perhaps she could have also raised the sexism issue at that time too. Otherwise, the first time they find out about it is seeing a post entitled “Sexism and WebDU”, and that seems a very confrontational way of tackling the issue.

    If there are specific things that WebDU does (as opposed to other conferences) that you or any attendee feel increases the level of sexism, please raise them directly with Geoff and Julie, or Vanessa and Erietta. They’re not avoiding the issue.

    Otherwise, it would be good to get some industry-specific suggestions.

    If you have concrete ideas about how to lift the level of speaking submissions from women (beyond a general call on various forums and contacting previous female speakers), then please post them.

    Adam, if you have actionable ways to overcome any obstacles to increased female participation, then post those too.

    Finally, as far as the animations, we’re shortly going to post them with some sort of framework that will help us assess whether we need to re-assess _our_ attitudes, or whether good comedy will always offend at least some people.

  21. So lets take a sanity check at this point in what is a thread of disaster :)

    We had a report that a female in the audience felt one WebJAM presentation was sexist an rude, I’d wager mostly rude and not so much sexist as it was more belittling men then women per say.

    We have Gary stating there was an undercurrent of sexism, but yet is able to actually stipulate specifically where, how and when these events allegedly took place.

    We have Kay, whom never attended and has no evidence of what it was like to attend this years WebDU, chimming in with her 2c on why the “vibe” for WebDirections South is better then WebDU (not saying it isn’t but going from vibe to sexism is a big leap is all)

    Yet, what the hell is going on and can I just say, Nectarine & WebDU Team are far from sexist and all freaking know this, so I’m just wonderin what would it take to satisfy one and all that WebDU isn’t a sexist breeding ground.

    As someone whom has attended every year except one, I have to say that even in the “party” setting (ie bar) the girls have been shown nothing but respect (well when I was there at anyrate).

    I’m just wondering if there is a underlying agenda here and its not sexism?

    Lets be realistic and more importantly, put our grownup hats on.


    Scott Barnes
    Developer Evangelist
    Microsoft – I’m not sexist, but I am agnostic?

  22. Suggestions on how to stop some of the sexist attitude.

    1) lead by example
    2) make all people speaking volunteering displaying at the conference aware at least that there is a code of conduct for the conference
    3) encourage people to come forward and report things, make yourself or your team available. Treat a concern seriously.

    How to get a greater speaker mix:

    1) promote early, the web site wasn’t updated till a few three months out.
    2) call for speakers across other communities not just the coldfusion/flex/flash ones
    3) make it clear first time speakers will be supported
    4) support people volunteering at the conference to get an idea of what is involved with speaking etc.
    5) mentor people or encourage other speakers to mentor people
    6) support (ie at least tell them you are looking for speakers) women’s speaker/ industry support groups.

    It’s not the ultimate list, its just a few quick ideas. Any other suggestions would be welcome

  23. Hi.

    So the discussion continues. Actually, I’m finding this useful, in that it is clarifying my own stance, and I’m becoming convinced that it is probably time I got actively involved in the Women in IT debate – colleagues have been asking me to publish some of my work in the area, but so far I’ve been postponing it. But this has probably been an error.

    Anyway, I don’t really have many practical suggestions yet, Minty, but I’ll outline what I would do at this point anyway. However, first I’d like to address the issue of the debate. I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me that this is an important concern which probably is being driven by agendas – but that this is no bad thing. Personally, I don’t see this as about WebDU or Nectarine. I’ve heard from almost everyone that Geoff and the organisers of WebDU are great people, and the posts I’ve seen from Geoff do nothing to damage this impression. I have read a lot from Minty, and if I take him as a representative of Nectarine, then again I have nothing but respect for them, and believe that they would never intentionally offend anyone. This isn’t about them. It isn’t about Rowlirowl either, which is why I’m disappointed when references are made about her personally. (It should also be noted that she had a follow-up post where she tried to balance her earlier one by covering what she liked about the conference, and I still support her earlier decision to post her experiences on LJ).

    What this is about is an issue that has been simmering for months (and has been around for years). There is considerable discussion in the Port80 forums, we’ve got some interesting posts from late last year and early this year from the likes of John Allsop, Jason Kottke and Erik Meyers among others (all of these were mentioned in Port80, and probably everyone reading this is well aware of them). Thus I see the current discussion as being a continuation of the earlier one. So the three (and a half) perspectives – Rowlirowl’s account of her impressions at WebDU as a woman, Greg’s account of his impressions, and Kay’s account of her impressions of the respective atmospheres of different conferences – all further this discussion. So while I agree with Scott that this shouldn’t be about WebDU and Nectarine, I don’t think that it is about them – instead it is about a major issue which has been recognised as something that should be addressed.

    Which brings me back to Minty’s question about what I would do. I’m an academic, so what I would do is driven by how I work as an academic. While I agree with all of Greg’s ideas, I’d start by trying to figure out where the problem lies – is it that many women aren’t hearing of the conferences; is it that some women don’t feel welcome (the sexism issue being part of this); is it that they aren’t given the opportunities to attend; or is it that they just aren’t interested? So I’d recommend talking to women who attend these conferences about their impressions (hence my strong interest in Kay’s and Rowlirowl’s posts), and then branching out to talk to women who don’t attend. I’d then probably look for patterns in what they are saying, and run a wider survey based on findings from this. Given that some conferences are more successful than others, I’d compare the procedures for the call for papers at conferences with a high percentage of female speakers with those that have a low percentage. I’d also look at why some women are more comfortable at particular conferences – again, I’d want to spend a lot of time talking to people like Kay about their experiences. (Actually, this sounds like an interesting research project).

    As short-term, concrete steps, I’d do everything that Greg recommended (and I really liked the encouraging first-time speakers idea – we don’t do that at the academic conferences per se, and it would be a great move). In particular I’d revise the call for papers procedure – if you did increase the number of women attending a conference, but they then saw few women speaking, my guess is that they would be uncomfortable with the situation (and rightly so). From what Geoff described elsewhere, my feeling is that the current procedure would tend to favour the status quo – people who visit the site are probably those who have gone before and are thus predominately male, and prior speakers are predominately male, so relying on these to sources seems problematic (he did mention three other sources, but I’d need more detail). Probably I’d try to reach groups such as Women in IT in my hunt for speakers. For attendees, I’d push things a bit more at the universities focusing on multimedia (multimedia courses tend to have more equal gender distributions). And at the conferences I’d grab some of the stuff from the academic conferences: things like a “Web Women” breakfast on the first day, use the launch to highlight who to speak to if you have any problems, and add a code of behaviour (as Greg suggested) for speakers.

    Sorry for another long post, Kay. This is a cool discussion, though, and your blog has been the best forum for it so far.

    Adam.

  24. Wow – thanks everyone for this intriguing dialogue. Thanks especially to Adam for making the point about the existence of sexism relying on the perception of the person who was offended, not the perception of the person who wasn’t offended – that was something I was trying to say, but couldn’t find the proper words.

    I’d also like to say that I have every respect for Geoff and the Daemon team who put on WebDU. It’s unfortunate that this kind of thing has happened but important that it’s discussed out in the open. Scott, I realise that you don’t think it’s an issue, but the fact that other people do itself means there IS an issue. WebDU is not the first techy conference to come up against it, and unfortunately it probably won’t be the last.

    At the moment I have a lot to think about, and not much time to do it. There’s some great suggestions here and lots for conference organisers to take on board.

  25. Kay,

    It’s not that I don’t think it’s an issue, I just think it’s being played out in the wrong forum and not only that, but its association with WebDU overall isn’t being portrayed fairly and accurately.

    Adam,

    I understand your position here and I’d argue that actively recruiting women for the sake of it, kind of devalues the offerings that women in IT can contribute. If there is to be equality in the IT industry and women continue to gain more and more respect for their efforts in such contribution, making “allowances” is counterproductive.

    Furthermore, men in the IT industry can be at times immature, much like other verticals and the only thing that folks like Gary and others like him can do is, ensure that they stay as a minority but this is more of a social behavioural problem and far more widespread then “one industry”. Its wider perspective and you can’t solve it industry by industry as new prospects arrive and leave in such industries, and so it will be like herding “cats”.

    If you look at the workplace 20 or even 40 years ago and compare now, there has been dramatic behavioural changes taken place. I’ve worked with folks whom make rude remarks, jokes and so forth from both genders, change their posture when the room dynamics changes. There is awareness and anyone whom breaches this “unsaid” rule, is left out in the open and are either brushed aside or isolated and a form of discipline takes place.

    Again, this isn’t about IT, it’s about men and women co-existing in a professional environment which has both an attraction of both power & notoriety.

    What Kay is talking about in terms of a “vibe” is really about a tribal approach to a social setting. WebDU is somewhat foreign to most we fly into a different location, meet with people whom most don’t actually know and somehow are supposed to get along like old friends.

    Kay’s been to WebDirections South, and I’d wager she would know more people there then WebDU and more to the point, the subject matter appeals to her more so then WebDU (which let’s face it, is probably a deep dive conference into Adobe products where as Web Directions South is a mixing pot of Web)

    I find the experiences i had with say BarCamp much more appealing then WebDU, but the only reason for this is because BarCamp was new, it wasn’t about technologies I’ve worked with and so I felt a sense of “learning”. Each to their own.

    At BarCamp there was a girl who was wearing a revealing amount of clothing, a few guys made some slight remarks about that and is that fair? No not really, as now we cross the threshold between separating of sexism and physical attraction towards another gender – in a sad way it could be argued that it’s the guy(s) in questions way of expressing their attraction towards such female.

    Point: It’s not about Barcamp, it’s about the social complexity of how genders interact with one another on a much wider and diverse playing field. There are right and wrong ways of engaging this kind of thing in a number of cultures and depending on which tribe you belong to, it varies.

    Lastly, just to illustrate how the human social setting is really weird I’ll mention some research we found with how people interact with one another in another secluded environment such as a train.

    An elderly lady sits at one of the train, and 4 young males jump onto the train at the other end. This elderly lady will monitor their movements frequently, keeping close guard on her own presence, where the security options exist and so forth.

    She’s basically scared.

    Exact same scenario, but the elderly lady is wearing a Brisbane Broncos football jersey and then the same exact 4 males get on this train also wearing a Brisbane Broncos jersey.

    She feels safe, as now she can relate to these 4 guys, thinking somehow if trouble were to brew, they would aid her.

    We humans are a fluid concept yet to be fully understood in how or why we act in the way we do.

    Just leave WebDU out of it, as it’s a brand worth celebrating not attacking – whether by intent or not, you’re inflicting criticism on the brand by threads like this.

  26. @ Scott – With your comment about the BarCamp (or any other event) attendees and the girl with revealing amount of clothing; how do we change the attitude. That’s my question. I don’t have a good answer, I wish I did as it really irks me.

    For the record, I’m not out to drag WebDU into the mud. It was a good conference. Very focused, enjoyable, it had an average feel about it, I wouldn’t say it was overly friendly or standoffish in vibe.

    Should the conference be criticised or not is another matter. I have no real attachment with the conference series, you all feel that you do, that can be seen in the level of passion this topic has produced. Hence maybe your views are a little skewed. If we put WebDU aside. and just consider the problem occurring at a generic conference I wonder if you would have bothered with this discussion. :)

    @Adam , who is Greg… ? :)

  27. Disagree :) I have friendships with the organisers but I also have friendships with many more of the web community and respective organisers.

    I at times am the biggest critic of WebDU and good or bad, it’s constructive. Skews are good, it means that people can weigh up discussion points for themselves as it pushes people harder to think for themselves.

    “..Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies..” – Robert Kennedy

  28. Hi Scott,

    I’ll try to be shorter this time. :) But a couple of issues were raised which were well worth commenting on.

    First off, every time this issue is raised, people rightly point out that women should be there on merit. I agree. But one of the cool things about the web industry is that we’ve all worked with a wide range of people, so we know that the women in the industry have just as much to contribute and are just as capable as the men – from our own experience. We also know that women comprise a significant proportion of web developers in Australia – certainly higher than that represented at many of the conferences. Thus I’d argue two things:

    a) That the conferences are missing out on a significant number of talented speakers if women are choosing not to attend (for whatever reason). So we need to examine why they aren’t attending to see if it is possible to redress this problem.

    b) Conferences can potentially be proactive in their treatment and encouragement of women within the field. By showcasing skilled women, conferences can promote to young girls and women; “We, as an industry, respect what you can do, and you are welcome here”.

    @Gary: String Greg = “Gary”; (Sorry – it is part of my job description to be absent minded)

    Adam.

  29. I think we are all in agreement that there is this large pool of female talent that is just slipping under the radar, that for whatever reason these women don’t want to attend formally organised events . As Adam has stated we need to find out why.

    So I ask, if you are a woman why don’t you attend the many web industry conferences or organised events that are currently on offer?

  30. Okay, some good suggestions coming through. Given how bloody hard it appears to be just organising a conference, I’m not sure that adding mentoring into that as well is feasible. But further investigation into the low submission rate is worth chasing.

    And Gary’s on the right track; we can speculate as much as we like, but in the end it’d be good to hear from a range of potential female presenters.

    If only there was some kind of group of women working in the web who met regularly. My feeling is if such a group did exist, they should be called something straightforward; perhaps, for instance, “Web Women”. Ah, if only such a thing existed…

  31. “it’d be good to hear from a range of potential female presenters.”

    Funnily enough I have pointed some of the women on the mailing list to this post – maybe some will chime in.

  32. Overall, I got to conferences in total to hear expert opinions on matters of interest – that or – to be entertained.

    Gender be damned :)

  33. Overall, I got to conferences in total to hear expert opinions on matters of interest – that or – to be entertained.

    Scott, I do that too – but at the same time, you don’t wanna hear the same old people time and time again. Encouraging people who have something useful to offer to consider speaking – especially people outside of the usual gang of suspects – just makes it more interesting. I dare say most regular speakers didn’t plan to get into speaking, it just turned out that way for them.

  34. Kay,

    You’ll have no disagreement from me in this :).

    I want to hear what Kay has to say on Web 2.0. I also wanted to hear what Michael Wise, a co-Flexer locally had to say on the matter and so on…

    If i wanted to hear what the Adobe crew were going to say, i’d read the glossy brochure that comes out.

    I feel your pain in this regard and its probably why I loved Barcamp / WebJam the most so far .. it was raw and unmoulded :)

    I am coming to Perth soon to visit our Microsoft folks there in the web space… I want to hear what Perth has to offer and especially Port80 folks..

    I got this job because of passion and i look at these conferences as a way of simply finding others like me whom love the web.

    Gender though has no points on my compass in this search :)

  35. Hi all
    I just wanted to chime in with my comments…
    Given that I didn’t attend WebDU, the question I wish to address is why women don’t attend more conferences, and take a more forward role in the industry.

    I think a lot of it has to do with the way we present ourselves. I consider myself a non-expert – I am a generalist, a lover of the web and a passionate collector of useless and useful information, which I then use in the workplace to inspire others.

    I am often underwhelmed at conferences as they can be a chance for some to show how ‘good they are’ and sometimes in this showcase of self adoration, the real purpose of debate and the exchange of ideas is lost. I think the conference machine has got so slick, and some have taken participation as a profession, that it is difficult for non-insiders to feel welcome.

    One of the things I enjoy about Port 80 and Web Women in Perth is the lack of pretension and the fact that people are free to exchange genuine ideas – I hear Scott’s ‘raw and unmoulded; comment.

    To bring this back to the gender debate – I don’t know – I think that a ‘female’ web voice is probably required, but whether this is in an explicit form, as in – here is the ‘female’ part of our conference – well, perhaps not, but certainly in making the environment more creative, less intimidating and more open to genuine exchange of ideas rather than an ego fest…..

    Perhaps this is a little off topic, but.. my genuine answer to the question – why we don’t go to conferences.
    1. children!!!!! – why don’t conferences have creches…..
    2. I am tired of feeling intimidated and stupid, and would appreciate real, open debate spaces.

  36. Kay et al,

    I’m late on this – had my own fires to put out today ;-(

    As a conference organizer, I always have sympathy for other organizers. We understand their challenges more than anyone else can – that old “walk a mile” thing.

    At Web Directions we get 40% plus women attendees, and aim for 25% plus women speakers. We had 40% last year.

    I think we are “lucky” – in the “web” part of the IT industry – particularly front end, and in government and edu, women are more prevalent than in the more traditional IT, and more “back end” side of things – Kay is definitely far from typical in that regard in our industry.

    But, it is also becase we have made it a conscious thing we work on. We seek out women speakers, session chairs, and other public faces of the conference.
    We’ve been very fortunate to have not suffered from some of the things which have been mentioned in relation to WebDU this year. But I don’t think its all luck

    I’ve been to many conferences, web, and more IT generally over the years, though not WebDU. So these comments are directed at the industry generally, but not WebDU specifically. An undercurrent of what I would call sexism pervades many, particularly in the “social” events. I cannot count the number of times that conversations turn to matters sexual. Many of the attendees are men away from home, on expense accounts.

    In “the world of men”, whether sporting or “professional” the absence of strong women models far from helps men respond positively to women. And what characterizes almost al the conferences I attend is a woeful male to female ratio. 90/10 is not uncommon.

    I honestly don’t think men are ever in situations where they are that far out of their comfort zone.

    Seemingly little things like “funny animations” have a far more powerful “validating” effect – laughter is a powerful thing, and “it’s just a joke” is a common defence for behavior that is far from acceptable.

    Yes, at times, people go overboard in their reaction to things, which may not help the overall cause, but overall, rather than trying to downplay what appears “trivial” we should listen carefully, and be more attuned.

    If people can’t feel safe in a professional environment, where can they feel safe? And if you provide an environment, it is quite literally your duty of care to make it a safe place.

    Let me tell you from experience, not a single man will not come because of that, but many more women will.

    I’m actually proud we can have a largely intelligent, thoughtful dicussion about this issue in Australia. Elsewhere things seem to devolve into rhetoric and recrimination very quickly.

    john

  37. Thanks John, I think you make a valid point about what happens to a group of men on expense accounts – Like you, I am enjoying reading the debate on this issue.

  38. I just left a post on the original blog and this is all getting out of hand. Shouldn’t we be talking about the new products coming out or some crazy new way of doing something we did not know?

    I wasn’t offended at all, I agree with Cristine, it was ALL GOOD. Everybody should take a chill pill and not try to make this conference turn into a boring, corporate, censored event.

    I have been attending confereces since 2000 in SF, NY, Vegas, FL, etc… it has always been mostly guys. So what? It doesn’t make any difference if the reason why you are attending is to learn, network and party. I got my best jobs out of these conference and I already have another possible project out of the last webDU.

    Don’t get me wrong, I respect all the comments but don’t find it necessary to take it to the next level.

  39. I’m going to (www.visitmix.com) MIX07 … who’s going? :)

  40. @John:Seemingly little things like “funny animations” have a far more powerful “validating” effect – laughter is a powerful thing, and “it’s just a joke” is a common defence for behavior that is far from acceptable.

    I understand this. In this case, however, I still stand by the animation as not being sexist. It parodies 50s ads, and by definition is only funny because it highlights how far we’ve come since then (will, obviously, still some distance to go!). Various women viewed the animation before it screened publicly (including one of the animators) and there was no reaction other than laughter. FWIW, it’s up at http://animation.nectarine.com.au for anyone who wishes to make their own interpretation.

    I was fairly shocked that someone took it as a serious statement that all Australian men consider all women to be housewives (not the least because I’m in NZ, the first country in the world to give women the vote, and with a great female prime minister). I was shaken that we had a hand in making someone unhappy with a conference we really respect.

    However, I completely understand that people will react differently, and have said I respect RowliRowl’s POV. As a conference organiser, however, you must appreciate that it’s hard to do something about things you don’t know about. The animation was the very first thing in the conference. Geoff, Julie, Vanessa and Erietta were widely available. Rowli was comfortable enough to ask them about getting a free pass to the banquet, but didn’t raise the sexism issue. I’m glad she blogged it, because it’s an issue that needs focus, but if, as you suggest, an apology might have been appreciated, that’s certainly more forthcoming if you approach someone privately rather than having them hear about it from posts entitled ‘WebDU and Sexism’ (a response to Rowli’s post).

    I certainly would have been happy to chat directly with her if she wished, explain our mindset in writing the scripts, and if that made little difference, apologise unreservedly. A friendly response at least might have made her feel more comfortable with the rest of the conference.

    I too am glad to see that a fairly level headed conversation has taken place (well, check out the exchange with Haya in the comments on Rowli’s post for an alternative reality take ;-) . And I’m sure that when they’ve decompressed, Geoff and Julie would be interested in chatting to you about your experiences as an organiser, and any tips you’d have…

  41. Damn I love Nectarine’s cartoons..

    So much talent, and I don’t have it… if only I could be that guy off Hereos whom steals peoples powers…

    (I just thought of a great Microsoft joke then, but better not tap it out).

    Kay: Can you declare this thread dead :) … last drinks ladies & gents?

  42. But as I understand it, the only direct request from Katrina was for free entry into the banquet dinner

    Minty, you make me sound evil. I am not. All I did was ask to ensure my understanding that my ticket didn’t include the dinner, was correct. I did not request free entry into the dinner. (Even if I did, that does not affect the speakers or animators).

    I regularly ask things I think I already know. I’m not the only person who does this. A good example from last night: a fellow graduand got off at the train station she believed correct for her, and made sure by asking the conductor. Conductor informed her she was incorrect so she quickly hopped back into the train.

    If you want to make me out as evil, I’ll help you: Even better, earlier on the day, I received completely free information I didn’t earn: I was directed towards the toilets. How dare I! :)

    All that is different about my post is that I posted it. The reality is that it is my impression, and when people ask about it, that is what I am going to say. The organisers are in a unique position due to the web to access the comments, and either decide to listen to it or ignore it. What they do is up to them.

  43. OK,

    I’ve just (to my shame, I should have done it before) seen the cartoon in question. Kinda Cute – Jon K-esque pomo kitchy thing. The particular shame on my part is that I have been called sexist for showing a 30 second clip of one of the earliest ever films – the execution of Mary Queen of Scots – by way of example of what a new medium (cinema) was like about the same age as the web was when I have that presentation. So, I should have appreciated more the possibility of an over reaction (swhicbh I think on th face of just seein gthat one short animation it is fair to characterize the negative responses as). But I think the over reation was probably contextual. The original poster puts it in the context of other slides, presentations and so on at the conference which used clearly more problematic images. All together, perhaps there is a pattern to which the original posters response seems a lot more reasonable than the specific issue we’ve debated in detail here.

    And all of this is in the broader context of the place of women in the web, and IT industries, an issue that keeps bubbling away, and has really come to the boil with the recent events around Kathy Sierra’s blog.

    Clearly it is an important issue to many people, and it won’t simply go away. So when it comes up, it bears careful attention, and rather than quibbling and defensiveness, perhaps a better response is to ask – why? whats going on? why is there something I can’t see that others can, and feel strongly about? Sometimes they’ll be being unreasonable – but that should be what we discover after a good hard look, after than being the default position, at least in my opinion.

    john

  44. @Katrina
    Minty, you make me sound evil. I am not.

    Heh. I think you’d struggle to find anywhere that I called you evil or even suggested you are! I’ve consistently defended your right to post, and stated I fully agree that sexism is an issue in this industry. I’m in agreement on the need to raise the level of female speaker (and attendee) representation.

    However, people’s reactions to the events you raised have obviously (from the wide-ranging comments) varied immensely. Feeling discriminated or objectified is a very personal thing. As such, I still feel that some sort of initial personal contact would been a good starting point. I can understand it could be a difficult issue to raise, but there were at least three extremely capable and savvy female staff widely available, any of whom I’m confident would have taken your comments very seriously. As I’ve said before, you still would have been able to blog about it afterwards, especially if the response had been lacking (or even if it had been positive!).

    I think you’re being a bit fey in saying “The organisers are in a unique position due to the web to access the comments”. That cuts both ways: the lack of friction on the web means that before they had a chance to make any sort of response, there was another post entitled “Sexism and WebDU” and a raft of comments from people who hadn’t even attended. I’d imagine they felt somewhat ambushed, and I don’t know that’s the best position to begin from to tackle a serious issue. (Coda: I’m not Geoff and Julie, so this is only my personal assessment and opinion!)

    I wasn’t at the other sessions you talked about, so I can’t comment there. But in terms of the animations, I unreservedly apologise for any discomfort they caused. That certainly wasn’t the intention (although I know intent isn’t everything).

    As I noted above, sometimes hearing someone else’s viewpoint can ameliorate angst. Did my explanation that it parodies 50s ads, and by definition is only funny because it highlights how far we’ve come since then, make any difference? Or do you still feel that we seriously stating that “Aussie men still think of women as being housewives and not professionals”. You noted that “all of the other characters were male” as one of its faults; does it make any difference that the characters were a man, a woman, a boy and a dog (of indeterminate gender)? The character in the Ruby on Rails skit shown just before the Coldfusion one also meets a fairly horrific ending. Did this animation also make you uncomfortable?

    I’m seriously interested in your opinion, because we’re actively involved in trying to make people smile rather than feel beaten down. I’m more than happy to continue to comment here, or to follow up off-list: minty@nectarine.com.au. Or if you think things have run as far as it’s worth on this point, that’s fine too. I’ll leave it in your court.

    And I don’t think you’re evil, any more than I believe we’re the supreme male overlords of sexist animation ;-)