Women at tech OSCON 2014 conference

Practice makes perfect: How tech events make women feel welcome

Woman sitting in front of her laptop
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Watching how technology-related events have handled issues around diversity and the inclusion of women in recent years is like watching someone practice piano: it isn't perfect, but you can see and appreciate the effort being put into it. You also can hope that as awkward as it is now, if the effort continues, eventually we won't need to think about women at tech conferences.

Attending OSCON this year felt a little like watching a pianist play a piece that he's beginning to get the hang of. Women were present and they were speaking on topics other than how to treat women in tech. I attended Ruth Suehle's Raspberry Pi Hacks talk, and it's a good thing I showed up early because the room was full to capacity. Other women presented technical talks on a range of topics, including: SWI-Prolog for the Real World (Anne Ogborn), Kraken.js (Poornima Venkatakrishnan), Debugging Lamp Apps (Jess Portnoy), and many more.

But we still are reading the sheet music and getting stuck in parts of it. I was surprised by the number of talks that were focused on women in technology. Don't get me wrong—the speakers were excellent and discussions on ways to get more women involved in STEM and open source were promising; however, it would be wonderful if the tech world were so full of women that a talk about women in tech felt as superfluous as a talk on how to plug in your computer—totally unnecessary because everyone already gets it.

And there were missed notes in other areas. I love vendor swag, and I think I picked up a T-shirt from almost every vendor that offered one, which means that I came home with 17 T-shirts (which nearly endangered the carry-on status of my bag). I got a woman's T-shirt from every vendor that had one, but I ended up with only five of those. I understand why—you get breaks with quantity discounts, and you can get a better price ordering 1,000 of one thing than 800 of one thing and 200 of another. But attending a tech conference as a woman does not feel "normal" when so few vendors have shirts sized for you.

At other times, "practicing" was more obvious, but our "playing" clearly showed improvement, and that we were making strides. At lunch, the tables had signs allowing people to find others to sit with who had similar interests. There were two tables this year for women in open source, which is one more than last year. And although we did talk about the issues around getting more women into tech, we also talked about projects we were working on, how we got into our current roles, and which current technologies intrigued us.

Best of all, there were moments in which I no longer thought about the issues of women in technology and tech conferences, moments when it all came together and I experienced the "music." One of the most memorable of those moments was during Geek Choir, a Birds of a Feather session on Wednesday night. Approximately 16 of us gathered to sing a cappella, starting with simple warm-ups, and moving on to a simple song in unison, and then finally, to more complex songs, sung in rounds. To end our session, we sang Dona Nobis Pacem in a three part round while standing in the large atrium of the convention center. It may have been my most enjoyable moment of the whole conference.

That I was a woman at a tech conference (or that there were only three of us in the Geek Choir) didn't matter. What mattered was that we all collaborated to produce beautiful melodies, no sheet music necessary.

Originally posted on Red Hat Open Source Community blog. Reposted with permission.

About the author

Gina Likins - Gina Likins | University Outreach, Open Source & Standards Team at Red Hat I have been working in internet strategy for more than 20 years, participating in online communities for nearly 25, and working in open source for more than four.  I'm passionate about finding ways to help our open source communities thrive and be more welcoming for everyone.