Kay lives here

working with the web

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?