5+ ways to make women feel welcome at technical events

January 7th, 2009 in women

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.

To women:

  • 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.

Anything else?

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14 Responses to “5+ ways to make women feel welcome at technical events”

  1. Jeff Waugh says:

    It’s funny, sometimes I do the “mention your partner” thing relatively early (before it becomes “necessary”) to ensure the context of the approach/discussion is well-defined… partly to ensure there are no misconceptions, partly for my own comfort.
    But then, it’s also nice to be able to introduce people to Pia (or find out if they already know her, as is often the case). ;-)
    One thing you didn’t mention: Asking the same questions, regardless of gender or inferred partnership. If you ask a guy, “Hi, what do you hack on?” why wouldn’t you ask the same thing of the girl standing next to him, regardless of her gender or that she’s possibly his partner?

  2. I can attest from much experience that at least ten percent of men at tech conferences are gay. Just remember: not every man is out to get you. Its super annoying to get blown off by women at tech conferences who think that me talking to them is some kind of come-on.

  3. pfctdayelise says:

    for women who are thinking about going:
    join LinuxChix/Geek Girl Dinners/etc and arrange to go with a woman you know from that group.
    for men and women who already attend:
    Speak out against sexist comments whenever you see them and shun community members who make them.

  4. Stu says:

    Have to be a bit careful with the talking about SO or kids etc, as if somebody is *not* hitting on you it comes accross as kind of arrogant and a bit annoying.
    Having said that I’ve found myself doing it before when it really wasn’t nessacary.

  5. stormy says:

    Agreed you shouldn’t be too blatant about why you’re doing it. I talk about my SO and my kids all the time to everyone though, so hopefully nobody thinks I’m doing it to ward them off!

  6. stormy says:

    I think sometimes you just have to point out that the comment was sexist by turning it around. I think often people don’t even think about it. I’d rather educate than shun unless they are doing it deliberately to scare people away.

  7. stormy says:

    Oh, good point. I’ve caught myself doing this a couple of times … not asking someone who looks like the SO what she works on. Often it turns out she’s a hacker too. Or she’s *the* hacker and he’s the SO tagging along to the technical event!

  8. stormy says:

    I bet most often they’re intimidated/shy themselves. I dragged a couple of friends around a show once talking to total strangers and I was informed that most people don’t approach total strangers like that. So I think it must be something about the tech conference culture and we need to introduce people to it!

  9. stormy says:

    @SteveALee pointed out the “dress code”. Newbies should know that most developers at tech conferences wear tshirts from other conferences or previous years’ conferneces or even this year’s tshirt. They like them and it’s a point of pride.
    That doesn’t mean you have to wear a tshirt – I’m just pointing out that they aren’t “just wearing tshirts”. They are wearing specific tshirts that they expect people to notice. Wearing your favorite grungy Timbuktu tshirt is not going to make you blend in. That said, I don’t think anybody is going to be too concerned with what you are wearing.

  10. One thing the organizers of the event can do to make women more welcome to conferences is to provide t-shirts in fem sizes. Turning it around, I know I would feel left out as a man if there were no t-shirts in male sizes at a event I would attend to.

  11. andre says:

    Yepp. Andreas’ last posting reminded me of Kathy Sierra who also blogged about conference t-shirts: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/12/tech_tshirts_ar.html .

  12. Richard says:

    Why are people so afraid of being “hit on”? Keeping a conversion a little bit flirtatious is fun, and does no harm.
    I think the problem is really more about “poor social skills” in general, so when the techies go out every once in a while and talk to other people, then the problem will solve itself. ;-)
    Cheers
    -Richard

  13. behdad says:

    Richard makes a good point. At some point you have to agree that not every one at a tech conference has average or higher social skills. Hell, there was a guy at GUADEC this year that was quite intimidating to many of us. He kept following us and wanting to stuff himself in our small circle when we really wanted to be alone and talk about some confidential matters. It’s not just about hitting on girls. Most of us are weird in one way or another, and some of that shows easily.
    Stormy makes great points. I have been to tens of conferences, and still if I go to a conf and don’t see many of my friends right away, I feel a bit awkward. Do I know their culture? Do I act awkward because their community is different from mine? etc, etc.
    I’ve found that a great way to deal with it is to think of it as if you’ve gone to a huge party. To some degree, a tech conference *is* a huge party. Feel free to approach people, socialize, go out for snacks or drinks with them, and if someone hits on you, well, deal with it like you do at a party.
    Cheers,
    behdad

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