Monday, November 19, 2012

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Gen Silent and Women at Tech Conferences

My local library is a treasure box. It does a great job covering the basics (books and other media for borrowing, online catalog, interlibrary loan), and then adds a whole new tier of cake on top of that by running loads of community programs. Thanks to one of these, I got to attend a free screening and Q&A session around the documentary Gen Silent, which explores issues faced by aging LGBT people.

I went into the screening with my usual trusts and biases: Hooray for medicine, the health care industryís been good to me, people need to stop being stubborn and ask for help, and so on. Afterwards, I felt embarrassed by how Iíd never even considered the issues and the perspectives of these elders. LGBT senior citizens are reluctant to go into assisted living or get home care? Well, yeah! If you grew up in a time when people like you were institutionalized or classified as mentally diseased by psychiatric handbooks, maybe you wouldnít be so willing to submit yourself to the health care industry either. Oh right.

Something from the question and answer section really struck a chord. The questions came up of how to reach out to these people. What can we do? One panel participant, a social worker, replied that itís not enough to put up a rainbow sticker and say, "This is a safe space." You need to be proactive and do things to prove it. Hold social get-togethers and support groups and tea dances and Pride parties. Itís not enough to just label a safe space. You need to create it and nurture it. You need to make it inviting. You need to make it so the people want to be there.

It reminded me so much of the topic of women at technology conferences (or hell, even women in technology, period).

We hear it so much - the constant refrain, the perpetual complaint, the question that baffles conference organizers: Why donít we have more women speakers at tech conferences? Why donít more women in tech step up and make themselves visible?

And my reply to that is what the Gen Silent panelist said. Itís not enough just to say "Women are welcome here." Itís not enough to label yourself an ally. Itís not enough to announce, "Attention women speakers: Come here. No, really. Itís cool. We actually want you here this time," and then have the gall to be surprised when they donít flock to your door.

We women in technology, we see those calls for participation, those declarations of safe spaces, and we ask, "Why should we believe you?" We wonder, "Youíre asking me to put myself out there and make myself vulnerable. If the space turns out to be less than safe, can I trust you to actively have my back?"

It sucks to feel defeatist, but we see what happens to women who get too visible and high-profile in technology. They get Kathy Sierraíd. They get Aisha Tyleríd. They get Anita Sarkeesianíd.

Five years after I first read them, Meri Williamsí comments on women at web conferences still stick with me and haunt me:

"The reality is that if a dog is kept in a cage and beaten every time it tries to escape, eventually it stops trying to escape. Merely opening the door can bring up such painful memories that it almost hurts to THINK about escaping.

Now, before I get flamed, I am not saying that women are like dogs that have been beaten. But I AM saying that we, as humans, all learn from our experiences. And saying íwell, you had your chanceí without understanding why that chance might not have been seen as a real chance by the group you are trying to reach out to is short-sighted."

If youíre eager to get more women speakers and more diverse participation at your tech conference, put some action where your mouth is. Make an effort at outreach. Actively recruit and mentor. Unleash some banhammers. You say you welcome us there? Words and stickers are easy. Prove it.

Crossposted to Tumblr

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