Reactions to women speakers

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 23, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Congratulations! You've managed to attract more women speakers to your conference. But, if you think your problems are over, you may be in for a surprise. If the experiences of Moose, the chair of Ohio LinuxFest 2012 are typical, instead of relaxing after your efforts, you may find yourself answering second-guessing from not-so-closet sexists.

Ohio LinuxFest is one of the regional conferences that has made special efforts to encourage women to speak. In 2010, thirty percent of its speakers were women -- a rate higher than most leading free and open source software conferences in recent years. In 2012, the percentage declined to fifteen percent, but included three out of four keynote speakers, and was still one of the higher percentages among major conferences.

Much of the credit for these figures goes to Moose, a long time member of Ohio LinuxFest's organizing team, who was content chair in 2010. Moose included her description of the criticism that such efforts drew while answering my questions for another article, and I thought the topic fresh enough (and depressing and humorous enough) to pass along.

Inaccuracies and inventions
Moose describes the comments received as "not surprising." She adds, "Usually, once a year I have a man come up to me and scream in my face until I call it to a halt, because we got 'some stupid woman' to talk about a subject they were sure they knew better."

Besides the obvious sexism, what exasperates Moose is the lack of context in many of them. For instance, one of her favorites is the suggestion that a woman who is a lawyer and a professor at Yale needs "more experience in public speaking."

Another comment received in the post-conference survey complained that Ohio LinuxFest seemed to place having women speakers "above all else [in] the last two years" -- despite the fact, that, even with the efforts to attract speaking proposals from women, male speakers still made up two-thirds of the schedule. 

Similarly, an unnamed podcast complained about "a feminist agenda at the conference," but worried that while focusing on having women speakers, "perhaps you might be losing your core value which really is Linux, right? So, if you're really pursuing a bunch of female talkers, what happens to al the other male talkers or whomever that might have something good to say?" 

The assumption here seems to be that there is a conflict between women who would speak at a Linux conference and Linux itself -- and that Linux is a topic only men would speak about. But what makes the comment sound especially desperate is that the comments are interspersed with such assurances as, "I don't want this to be -- you know, my comments to be perceived in a negative manner, like I'm against women or something like. It's not the case at all."

Other criticisms assumed that women speakers were chosen at the expense of men. One allegation was that a male speaker was turned down simply because a female speaker submitted a similar proposal. The allegation included a description of events that, "doesn't match at all the way our talk proposal process works," according to Moose.

In much the same way, one rumor claims that the conference received a proposal from someone with a gender-ambiguous name, and rejected the proposal upon learning that the person was a man. Moose comments, "This story failed because the person in question is someone known to me personally, and I would have known the minute I saw his proposal l knew who it was from. Oh, and the little detail that he never submitted a proposal for 2012. Or 2011, for that matter."

Many of the criticisms seem to assume -- on no evidence -- that encouraging women speakers means judging their proposals by a different criterion than men's. One comment suggested that gender "and not the talk quality" was  the priority for choosing speakers. Several others stated that the conference "obviously took every proposal by a woman," which Moose describes as "far from true."

Moose does admit that, proportionately, fewer women were rejected than men. But, ironically enough, she attributes that to the fact that "women are more likely to submit talk proposals that are well thought out and come with bios that include relevant details to explain their knowledge of the subject. Men are more likely to submit talk proposals that aren't very complete and with bios that say things like, 'I've been doing this for years," or 'Google to see how important this project is.'" 

But what Moose calls "the crown of the irony" is that the speaker chair, who made most of the selections in 2012, was a man. Furthermore, Moose says that he describes himself as "a right wing, conservative, middle-aged, church-going, hetero, white man." From the description, the speaker chair sounds like the very last man to make being female the main criterion for selecting presenters.

More of the same
To long-time observers, these comments probably sound familiar. Accusations of special treatment for women, of irrelevancy, of double-standards and reverse sexism are common whenever any women's issues are raised. 

What is rarer, however, is the chance to see how little these reactions can be based on. Apparently, not only can any increase in the visibility of women provoke such reactions -- even if women are still very much a minority presence -- but many of the accusations seem to leap full-grown from the accusers' imaginations, unchecked by any reality.

From Moose's account, though, women who submit proposals are playing by the rules. In fact, they are playing by the rules more than most of the men, perhaps compensating for a lack of confidence with more thoroughness.

However, more than anything else, what Moose's account shows is that such accusations come from closed minds. Encouraging women speakers is worth doing for its own sake, but if you expect such efforts to change anyone's opinion, you'll only disappoint yourself. Evidence won't stop the opposition, so perhaps the best response is to laugh at its inconsistencies.


  • Re: The women who don't exist

    It's only in your mind that a quota is being put aside for women. All Moose and the other people trying to encourage diversity are doing is encouraging women to submit proposals. These proposals still have to be evaluated on quality and relevance. I have yet to hear of anyone suggesting that speaking slots are being reserved for women, except for people so determined to find fault that they dream up imaginary objections.
  • The women who don't exist

    The key concept is, when white guys happen to be selected for 100% of any given position, that can't be bias. That's just the way the world is.

    But when you suggest that women might have n% of the positions, no matter how small n might be, you're suggesting that merit be thrown out of the window. Why? Because women who are qualified to fill that position do not exist. Any women you find to fill that position will be a token.
  • This has happened to me.

    This sort of idiocy has happened to me with some of the events I've helped organise.

    Foe example we had a 50/50 male/female split in the speakers on the User Experience stage at Agile 2012. Not through a quota system I hasten to add.

    I felt quite chuffed about this. I took it as a good sign about the community we'd built up. Only to encounter reactions like this on- and off-line.

    "I had no idea a woman was four times as valuable as a man" -

    ... humanity depresses me sometimes...
  • Not just women

    To the first Dann who commented:
    I suppose you missed all those years that OLF's range of speaker diversity included a diversity of physical abilities.

    When I did my talk at OLF in sign language, that was for the benefit of one of that year's speakers, who was in the audience at my talk.

    Deaf speakers? Check. Blind speakers? Check. Speakers using a wheelchair? Check.
  • An observation

    I've seen this happen too, at conferences and pretty much any event with a speaker program. I've organized quite a few in a different disciplines and spoken at a few as well.

    I think part of the problem is really, for the people who insist diversity efforts are special treatment, having all white male speakers isn't a problem. It honestly isn't at all fishy to them that the ones who would be "the best" at something would over and over again be white guys. In fact, those people get downright insulted when you suggest anything else.
    I can understand that after working hard and getting to a certain place, you might believe that anyone who isn't as well-known as you just didn't work as hard or isn't as good, especially if you didn't see any women or people of color working with you, or misinterpreted what you did see.
    I can see how scary it would be to think that maybe you worked really hard and earned things, but someone you didn't see is just plain better than you, and if it weren't for something as arbitrary as gender or race, that person might have your spot. It's definitely easier to believe the reason you didn't get to present is because of the PC police. It's definitely easier to believe that you worked hard and got what you got and that's all there is to it.
    I can understand all that, but I refuse to indulge it. It shouldn't be that hard to entertain the possibility that someone is just better than you - after all, that's what you're asking thousands of women and people of color to believe, with a lot less solid statistical reasoning.
    Frankly, if you're that threatened by attempts to diversify and expand the pool of talent, I doubt you're that big of a fish in it anyway.
  • Thank you

    I'm rather embarrassed that I missed this earlier.

    Either way, thank you, Mr Byfield, for this article.

    Thanks also to Mr Washko for coming forward with the link to the actual podcast, and for being a voice of reason on it.

    As for having to "throw diversity in people's faces", no, it should not be necessary. But just look at all the other technical conferences out there and tell me how many speakers are not white and/or not male. If we (as conference organizers) don't encourage diversity in our speakers we cannot expect diversity in our audience. Change does not come about by expecting it to magically happen. Someone has to get out and push.

    And I'm most amused by the "other Dann", who clearly has never heard me state over and over again that changing the gender ratio at FOSS conferences is only part of the problem. Making it less of a Sea of White Faces is another part.
  • Re: Important Thing

    I would agree that ideally the process of including women in any process should be invisible (to the point that even if special consideration is given, it will not be obvious either way), but that is not the point of this article. This article is describing the sad fact that some people seem to be unwilling to consider the idea that women can be competent in technical fields, and assume that when such appear that they have not earned their place.

    I think it is a sad commentary on our times that we cannot believe that a person from a minority group (of any kind) did not earn their position. There may never have been a true meritocracy in the world, but that does not make such an ideal unworthy. Those who didn't earn their position have not been done any favors (perhaps the only one being that they now have a larger audience to watch them flounder outside of their expertise), and those who do earn their position need to be afforded the respect that goes with what they have accomplished. Unfortunately, Affirmative-Action-type programs provide as much excuse as is necessary for anyone who is prejudiced to assume that minorities cannot earn the positions given to them. The incident in this post is a stellar example of the results.
  • Important shouldn't be ABOUT the diversity itself...

    I think the problem isn't the diversity push's the fact that it's in the should just BE and not be a focus or a should just happen. The focus should be on Linux and not on the fact that the person giving the talk is a woman.
  • Response

    I will name that podcast because I am one of the co-hosts and I will also provide a link to the episode: . There was more than one view point presented in this discussion but I do feel that Moose made some valid points.

    It seem that whenever addressing or putting forth efforts towards a group that has been marginalized in there is an overwhelming negative reaction towards those efforts however small or large they may be declaring it a "dangerous" and "alienating" agenda. I myself have easily fallen into this trap to see only what is happening in the moment and not fully understanding the historical connotation. One would like to believe that there is more equality for all, and while efforts have come a long way, these efforts have not fully extinguished the past nor have they extinguished the experiences of those who have endured these inequalities. It is easy to sit back and say "I don't do that" but it is not about you. Maybe you don't, but that does not erase the experiences of those who have had to face the issue time and again.

    I don't believe that there was an agenda to promote women speakers above men at OLF. But I do think that OLF has heightened the awareness of inequalities both historic and present. An awareness that forces us to face some uncomfortable truths about our society and its hypocracies.

    Furthermore, the posting above (or below,not sure where this will land) by Dann is not me. I do not agree with that assessment.
  • the language of division

    Perhaps part of the troubling dynamics around this particular topic is that it is often broached with the language of divisions (between people) by people on all sides of the conversation.

    A good example of this can be found in this article: "what Moose's account shows is that such accusations come from closed minds."

    So according to this article, those who figured there was an agenda have closed minds, and to accept an adjustment in their viewpoint, they will also have to accept they have "closed minds." Ouch. Chances are these people do not see themselves as close minded, and they probably *are* open minded in various other ways (if not in this one particular area).

    Let's assume some actually are closed minded in this aspect of life: does observing that add anything useful to the discussing, or is it borne of frustration and/or an attempt at shaming? In my experience, that generally just makes people stick to their positions more strongly rather than think critically of them.

    I've certainly heard much worse than "you're close minded" from those who hold other viewpoints on this topic, so I'm not laying blame at any one person or group's feet. It does seem, however, to be a common communication pattern around this set of topics that we don't see as much in some others in our community.

    That said, I fully respect and appreciate the frustration that comes from continued and repeated negative experiences as I'm sure long-suffering people like Moose must endure. When others try to make you feel like an outsider, especially a threaten[ed/ing] outsider, it's pretty hard to adopt the language of inclusion.

    I also think it's beyond vital that misconceptions like the ones laid bare in this article are addressed head on and publicly, so thanks for writing it.

    p.s. the atheist/humanist movement in the USA is going through a much more heated, and self-destructive, version of this exact dialog. It's not unique to F/OSS in the least, and the same sorts of divisive language patterns are visible there too.
  • Disagree

    I am not the only one who noticed this and this isn't a sexist point of view either. I think what was heard of on that unnamed podcast was taken out of context. We made a mention of it and had a discussion about this. It would not have brought it up if it wasn't brought up by many attendees.

    I am a fan of diversity. I think it's a good thing. Talking about it and throwing it in peoples faces shouldn't be necessary. Why? Because women being a part of the community should just be the norm. They should be treated like any other person. And it should go almost unnoticed. We shouldn't HAVE to make a big deal about women being speakers. It should just be.

    That's not a sexist point of view. That's reality.
  • agenda

    perhaps one of the issues some see is OLF for all there talk of diversity only care about promoting female speakers especially in the keynote roles.
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