Someone approached me recently and said their female friend had a bad experience at a technical conference and was never going back. He wanted to make sure that her experience didn't happen to anyone else. So I've been thinking about it.
Women at technical conferences. There's not too many of us. But every year I see more. I'd like to see even more. I think we're missing out on a lot of great people.
So here's my advice. Take it or leave it. Or leave your own advice.
- You'll feel awkward sometimes. Don't worry. Believe me, most of the guys are feeling awkward too. Just ask them. It's awkward to be in a room with several hundred other people who you think you may know from online but you don't know what they look like … or maybe you met them last year or the year before and you can't remember their name. Or they're all talking about this cool project that you never heard of …
- Talk to the person next to you. I've met lots of interesting people this way. Only about 1% look at me like I'm crazy.
- If you feel like you're being hit on, just make it clear you're not on the market. Talk about your boyfriend or your kids. But don't run away. They'll still be friendly. (I've actually had this happen in reverse! Someone very specifically mentioned his wife in a way that made me wonder if he thought I was hitting on him! I filed it away as a useful technique.)
- If someone invites you to a party, they probably aren't explicitly hitting on you. There are lots of parties at technical conferences and they are a great place to meet other people and talk about those cool ideas … go!
To men and women who already go to technical conferences:
- Make women feel welcome. (Make all newbies feel welcome.) Talk to them.
- Introduce them to other women. (Don't go around looking for women and say, "here, I'll introduce you to other women.") But if you see the opportunity, go for it. Introduce the other woman and tell them what she works on. I think 90% of all women not returning to a technical event because of some awkward situation could have been avoided if they'd just had other women to sit with, chat with, etc.
- Don't hit on them at first. Become their friends first. Get to know them. Make sure they have other friends at the conference. Then if you hit on them, there's a chance you can still be friends if they say no. There's a chance they'll come back next year too.
- Talk about your project. Introduce them to others and talk about what they do. Not only is it interesting and gives them a sense of the community but it also gives them something to ask questions about.
- Tell newbies about where people are going for dinner or what parties are happening. Invite them to dinner and make it clear it's a group thing.