The Ratio of Women Speakers in Tech

There are a lot of my opinions and viewpoints that have changed over time. Some slowly and naturally, and some sharp and sudden like a wet mackerel to the face. One is on the ratio of women speakers when it comes to tech conferences.

I previously held an opinion like many of the folks in the PHP community, who are discussing this stuff now, which is: well there just aren't that many women programmers!

That seems fair right? There aren't many women speakers because there aren't many women programmers. Us menfolk have been to loads of conferences and seen hardly any women, we've worked in our startups and there might have been one, but the meetups are all dudes and everywhere we go it's mostly dudes! Right?

That used to be my opinion, and I've run multiple conferences in the past that were extremely male: cast, crew and audience. I could make my excuses, but I'm going to accept that I was ignorant and lazy. Everything in this article is the 180 mental flip I've come to over the last year or two with the help of some good friends.

Take the above viewpoint for a minute (dumb and entirely anecdotal as it is) and go with it, because it's one I see a lot of people hold.

If we're going to say that we think there being 1 or 2 women speakers at a conference of 10 or 20 speakers is representative of the ratio of women actually in the field, then we're making an argument for accurate representation. We're saying the gender ratio on stage is that of the ratio in real life.

Assuming the gender ratio is 10% women in the field then having 1 or 2 at a conference of 10 or 20 speakers would be accurate, but here is a little statistic:

Women comprise 34% of web developers; 23% of programmers; 37% of database administrators; 20% of software developers; and 15% of information security analysts. (Department of Labor Current Population Survey, 2012)

So if we're going with the representative argument, at conferences about web development, I'd expect 34% of the speakers to be women. At programming conferences I'd expect 23% of the speakers to be women. At database adminstrator conferences I'd expect... you get the idea.

Simply put, the ratio argument does not hold up to the real world. We have a discrepancy.

Whenever anything is said in this conversation about the discrepancy, there are a lot of common responses that are traipsed out.

Getting 50% is just not possible

Some people act like 50% is an unreasonable goal, and so give up on the whole idea and shut down anyone who talks about improving the situation at all.

50% does not have to be the goal right now. Let's try and get way the hell past 10%.

Quota Filling

Why should the conference be responsible for quota filling instead of selecting based on skill

Basically the thought process for some conference organizers (speaking as somebody who ran three ~100 person events) goes like this:

  1. Do a CFP
  2. Reach out to some folks to get them to submit
  3. Realize you don't have many women
  4. ???

Some would say that at step 4, if you turn down some guys who would give good talks to find women, then you are quota filling.

Firstly, "quota filling" suggests that you're just throwing some women in there to avoid getting shouted at.

Let me be clear. Placing women on the stage for the sake of having some women up there is not what many reasonable people are asking for. It's offensive to suggest that is why a decent ratio of women speakers is an objective. It is also quite obviously offensive (I would hope) to ask somebody to speak just because they are a woman.

It can also be damaging. If you have experienced men and a few inexperienced women you found to fill your "quota" then you're going to make those women look bad in front of a lot of people.

Getting any women you can find is not the point. Saying "oops, it looks like we got a bunch of dudes so far, lets see if we can make this a bit more balanced" is not quota filling. It's rebalancing the scales of equality that are - for a myriad of reasons - way off base right now.

Secondly, quota filling is a shit idea because it gives folks a ready to use slippery slope argument.

Once we add five women, are we sure that one of them is a single mom? We wouldn’t want to leave out that demographic and have people assume the only women who can make a conference panel are single ones without kids or ones with partners at home to lessen their load.

There’s also no African Americans on the Edge Conference’s roster. I don’t see any people of (obvious) Hispanic descent. Why is no one up in arms over that?
-- Women, Tech Conferences and the BullSh!t Surrounding It

Ha, right. If we start jamming people in based on one criteria, we're gonna have to start jamming people in based on another.

It's not about catering to every checkbox you can imagine, it's more about questioning why all of your speakers are of such a narrow demographic, and attempting to make things be a bit more representative of the field.

Just like with our stats on women in the field, surprisingly enough 95% of programmers are not white men, and conferences sure do make it seem that way.

Beholden to the CFP

Some conference speaker selections are invitation based.

Some conference speaker selections are CFP based.

Most are realistically both, even if they do not advertise it.

If a conference is not doing a CFP and it only selects dudes then you fucked up. Let's assume there is a CFP, because many of the conferences lacking in diverse lineups use this defense:

Women just aren't submitting [as much as men] and we take our submissions from CFP

This may be true, and it may be down to a huge number of reasons. It may be that your conference board is just a bunch of dudes and they can't be bothered with another brofest. It could be you don't have a Code of Conduct and they're uninterested in supporting that, or it could be that your Twitter followship doesn't have many women in it for whatever reason and your marketing efforts were a bit lacking beyond you and your friends tweeting about it.

Whatever the reasons, saying "We don't have any/many women because none/not many applied." is a total cop out and sometimes a bit of a convenient lie.

I've been approached a bunch of times by conference organizers – everything from local conferences in far away lands to some of the largest PHP conferences – saying "Hey Phil, we'd like you to speak at our conference."

I didn't go to all of them, but with the ones I did, sometimes I put a CFP in after they asked me to, sometimes they just ignored the CFP step entirely and signed me up.

  1. So it's not always a CFP.
  2. Why is it ok to ignore CFP sometimes, but be beholden to it when discussing women speakers?
  3. Why can't they approach smart women they know?
  4. If they don't know more women why don't they try broadening their social circles?

We Got A Few [from sponsors and we had no say]!

Often at conferences, the larger sponsors send people to speak, and a lot of these folks - in my experience - have been women (#NotAllDevEvangelists). This means that some (or depressingly sometimes all) of the female line-up is filled with sponsor provided folks.

Now, sponsor provided people are not a problem. Sure sometimes they just try and flog you their stuff, but many of these speakers are amazing, insightful and don't just bang on about their company.

Sadly when there are sponsor provided people flogging the product, the reaction depends on the gender of the speaker. When a guy is up there sales pitching his heart out, most folks just think "that guy is spammy" and wander off or open the laptop. When a women is doing it, and they see no/few other women at the conference, they end up thinking some pretty negative stuff about women in tech, if they realize it or not.

XKCD on "That guy sucks" vs. "Women suck"

Just like with "quota filling", if there are just a few women and they are not giving particularly technical talks, it leaves a general bad impression of women as a whole.

Besides, if as a conference you can't get past 10% when you have sponsor provided women speakers, then you're really fucking something up at a fundamental level.

Hiding the Real Problems

There are certainly huge problems to solve in why the number of women programmers are so far below 50%, like all the reasons in this study showing the high attrition rate of women in tech.

One of my friends quit programming courses because the lecturers gave her zero help and a lot of shit, while bending over backwards to help the boys.

One of my friends quit a job because it was a bit of a boys club, and the CEO did not know how to change that. They both just decided it was easier for her to work somewhere else.

The best developer at the last startup I worked for nearly didn't get hired because she "Wasn't a good fit for the team." No idea what that meant, but she was a fucking excellent programmer who used parts of PHP I didn't know existed to smash out fizz-buzz in no time, while some of the other guys couldn't even get it done.

All this stuff is a problem, but aiming for a more representative number of female speakers at conferences is not an either/or situation. Schools and startups can work on those problems, while conferences work on theirs.

Conferences are a Business

I totally get this, being there in the past myself.

Conferences gotta make money. Conferences gotta get attendees to get that money. Attendees wanna see people that know smart stuff to convince their bosses or partners the money is worth being spent.

This argument is used to explain that the hunt for a diverse lineup is irrelevant, because you just need to get bums on seats and known names are the best way to do that.

  • Reputation does not equate to skill. I'm a half decent developer who has been given the chance to speak at way too many conferences.
  • An awful lot of these known names - myself included of course - are white dudes, way up into the 90% range.
  • Recycling the same old names every time can't be doing a huge amount for business, especially when most of these folks are fairly young and unlikely to die or retire soon. Fresh blood should be considered a must.
  • If a woman speaker is high on skill and low on reputation, lend her some privilege and get her on the secondary stage, then bring her back next year on the main stage if she kills it.
  • If you want to bring as many people as you can, a more diverse lineup will lead to a more diverse potential demographic, meaning you can make more money...

The latter point does presume that people of a certain demographic are more likely to attend if they are represented, but I don't feel like that is unreasonable. I doubt many people are sat there waiting for a diversity checklist to hit 3 boxes before they grab a ticket, but I do think a lot of people are tired of seeing white-dude lineup after white-dude lineup.

Also on the last point, think of it this way: Even if you're a misogynistic ass-hat who doesn't care about gender equality or diversity, there is an economic incentive to doing this. Nobody will know if that is your reasoning, and maybe they don't need to know, but if all you care about is running a business then widening your demographic seems like a pretty solid way to do it.

Finally, if you could not do any better at your conference, maybe some outside help could change the situation next time.


I don't think anyone here is trying to be a bad person.

I think the vast majority conference organizers are good people who are stressed out, and maybe aren't taking as many things into consideration as they could.

I don't think we need to shout at any conference organizers that don't have 50% women on their lineup.

I think we should probably be having polite (probably private) words with conference organizers who fail to hit 25%.

I think it would be good if people raised the questions of why a conference is 95% white-dudes, but I think onlookers need to stop traipsing out the above shitty arguments when they do.

I think most conference organizers need to expand their followship to include more women, and advertise outside their usual networks by approaching groups and organizations that are there to help with this.

I think conference speakers should try to lend their privilege to others who are less known in general. Invited to speak at a conference but can't make it? Suggest a friend, who might not be a white-dude.

I think a lot of us need to re-evaluate how many women there really are in programming, and start asking why we don't see them around as much. What is it conferences, meet-ups, startups, etc. are doing that makes it be so dude-centric?

And while we all know /r/php can be a festering pile of bile-flavoured nonsense at times, this thread is the problem with this conversation being had. So much ignorance in there, and one of the moderators jumped in saying all this stuff and more. Apparently I am unfairly hostile to white-dudes.

I have a lot of work to do with my podcast to stop it being such a cavalcade of white-dudes too. There's no high horse here, just a plea for attempts at progress, instead of a never-ending stream of "Nah, it's fine!".

Further Reading

Also, SunshinePHP achieved about 30% women speakers last time around, so maybe give Adam Culp a shout if you're organizing something. Good job!