Please Stop Asking Me to Speak About Women in Technology

I was recently recommended as a pinch-hitter keynote speaker for a Linux conference by a friend who wasn’t going to be able to present due to a scheduling conflict. She put me in touch with the conference organizers, and they reached out to me with the exciting email subject “We want YOU to keynote [conference name]!!”

I’ve been doing a lot more speaking in the past year, and was happy to step in to help out. Speaking at conferences makes me enormously uncomfortable, but I’ve been told I’m good at it, and I promised myself a long time ago that I’d never say no to an opportunity just because I was scared.

I replied to the conference organizers with an introduction of my background, and the types of things I usually speak at conferences about: programming, risk, security and privacy, and empathy, mostly. (A weird mix, I know, but that’s my jam.) I provided samples to some blog posts and speaker decks they could take a look at to see what might work for them.

They replied (politely) that they were hoping I would talk about increasing the number of women in technology.

My heart sank.


I replied (also politely) that I don’t typically present on women in technology issues, and asked how they would feel about  a “diversity in tech talk”, instead of one aimed just towards women in tech, since my position tends to be one that empowers all that feel disenfranchised, not just women. It’s definitely not the talk I would have wanted to give at a Linux conference, as diversity in tech is something I care about but I’m far from an expert on it. When I’m speaking at a technology conference, I prefer to talk about, well, technology. But I was trying to be flexible, out of respect for my friend who had recommended me.

I received an email reply shortly after that explained that they “decided to go another way” with the keynote – and the “other way” was apparently finding another woman to keynote about gender diversity in tech.

This is their conference, and they certainly have a right to stay focused on what they want to accomplish with it (although I admit I don’t understand how diversity in tech – which includes women – would be contrary to that).  Maybe they found a speaker more qualified to talk about women in tech. It wouldn’t be hard to do, since I have literally never presented on women in technology in my almost 20-year career, but it seemed like a pretty abrupt gear-change given their initial enthusiasm.

The assumption that of course I’d want to talk about women in tech “because VAGINA!” is incorrect, and I find it a little bit shitty, to be honest.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and something tells me it won’t  be the last.

When I present, I present about technology. There mere fact that I have a vagina does not make me qualified – or interested – in presenting about women in technology. I am absolutely not criticizing the women that do choose to present on this topic. I think their work is important and valuable – it’s just not my thing.

My position is that the best way for me to be a role model for women (and men) in technology isn’t to give talks about being a woman in technology, but to kick ass and take names at being a technologist, and to give great presentations on technology topics. This is my way of showing men and women in technology that women are as capable and badass as the bros.

It’s the same reason I always agree to speak at conferences even when I know I’m a token.  I frequently spend my own money to fly out to speak at conferences that can’t afford to fly me out or cover my hotel, and I do this because it’s important for men and women to get used to seeing women at the podium, demonstrating their skills as an authority in technology. If we can get a few more women on that stage, maybe we won’t feel like such a rarity anymore, and the perceptions of us in technology will shift.

Women are not psychically connected at the fallopian tubes, and my experiences in tech will not reflect the experiences of a vast majority of other women in tech.

I’m happy to talk to you about my thoughts on gender and equality issues. I’d love to grab a beer with you and tell you my experiences, and relay the experiences relayed to me by my fellow chicks in tech. I’ve even been known to get a little ranty about it on the Twitters, and occasionally blog about it. I care deeply about diversity and equality, but I want to level the playing field in society, not just in tech. And not just for women.

Simply being a woman in technology doesn’t automatically make you qualified or interested in presenting about women in technology. It’s not some sort of ZOMG Uterus! club, and the assumption that it’s the only thing I’d be useful at talking about is a problem for me, regardless of how well-intentioned you are in wanting to bring this topic to the forefront at your conferences.

If you want women to feel less like outsiders in technology, try having a few of them speak at your conferences about *gasp* technology.

Technology is my passion, and while it’s far from the only thing I care about, it’s the only thing I care to speak about in conferences. Yes, I’ve had a vagina longer than I’ve been in tech, but only just.

So yeah, I’ll be your token for now. But I will not give a presentation on women in technology.

So, please, stop asking.

(The attached poster hangs in my living room, and was sent to me by @jzy from @StackExchange. It is amazing, and I love it.)

  • Nadyne Richmond

    Such an awesome post. I especially agree with your point that it’s important for the audience to get used to seeing technical women giving kickass technical talks. There’s value in the women-in-tech, and the greater diversity-in-tech, conversations. That doesn’t mean that ticking off that diversity checkbox means that the individual is the right person to talk about the topic.

  • Nadyne Richmond

    Amusingly, the ads on this post for me right now include “6 engagement rings with amazing little details”. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on engagement rings.

    • LOL Sorry about that. Not intentional, I promise.

      • Nadyne Richmond

        You posted about women. Of *course* the accompanying ads are for engagement rings. What else could the ads be about? The list is limited. Tampons, botox, daycare, …

        • AND BABIES!!!!!111!!one!1

    • Pedro Osório

      I see no such ads. Also, ads are targeted based not only on the content but also on the users (and their online behavior).

  • Lorna Mitchell

    Thankyou, this was a great post, very nicely put, and I have been wondering/worrying about all those issues myself lately so it came at a really good time. I really am more interested in technology than women.

  • Kate McDonald

    I maybe have jumped up and down a little reading this. I work as a Unix/iSeries admin, and get a lot of people expecting me to speak for women in technology overall. I can’t do that. I have my experiences, they have theirs, and having shared biology doesn’t make us instantly able to understand and speak for all of us, except to keep pushing our talents as being the important thing, not our gender.

  • Completely agree. I’m not very interested in hearing about women in technology – I’ve always been of the mind that if they want women in tech then let them talk about tech instead of their gender. If talking about gender then it defeat the point of “women in tech”.

    There are already many awesome females working in technology, and many that have made huge progress. I want to hear about what the progress is, the benefit of it – the gender no longer matter.

    I recently gave a talk on the rookie track at bsides London – I’m deaf so I presented it in sign language. It’s about technology (to be specific, about passwords). My disability had nothing to do with it – so I’m with you there!

    • I’m not sure that gender no longer matters. There are still definitely issues that need to be addressed, but again, I think these are issues we see in all of society, not just tech – and not just for women. I do understand what you’re saying, though.

      Incidentally, as a hearie who used to be fluent in ASL, I would have loved to have watched your talk in sign. I’m hoping to be involved in DEAFcon at Defcon this year, and I realized I don’t know ANY of the technical signs, since it’s been so long since I signed, and computers weren’t as much of a thing back then. o_O Do you have any resources you could point me to specifically for technical/computer signs?

      • Here’s a link to my video of the talk – as it’s a rookie track, it’s just around 10 minutes – however as I’m a Brit, we use BSL (British Sign Language) – (most obvious difference is that we finger spell less (and when we do, it’s two handed not 1 handed as in ASL). 🙂 I went a bit too fast, nerves perhaps, so that I didn’t give my interpreter much chance to keep up. Whoops. Still a great experience for me.

        To be honest I don’t actually know much technical signs myself – there really isn’t that many deaf people in UK that’s as versed in IT as I am (they exist, but not many of them!). Especially when talking about IT security. I either spelt them or made up my own that I agreed with the interpreter beforehand – it’s hard on him too since he doesn’t understand the subject, there isn’t any technical signs so I’ll finger spell quickly and if he miss, he have to know etc! He coped quite well despite having met me that day (I hail from North of UK, and talk is in London so got a local).

        Ask around at DEAFcon, I’m sure any deafies would be happy to tell you what they know 🙂

        • You did a great job – and OMG you sign so fast! LOL I was hoping I could parse it without audio, but it was way too fast. (I’m also very, very rusty, so I don’t think it was just your nerves.)

          I’m surprised at how similar BSL and ASL are, to be honest. I could recognize a lot of of the signs. For some reason, I remembered there being more differences between the two. (I was learning Guatemalan sign language at one point, so my brain had to translate Spanish *and* sign at the same time. It was slow-going, but really fun to learn.)

          I have some security talks that include password stuff, if you’re ever interested. Use them at will if you think they’d be helpful to you.

          This is the one I used to give to my own company for our quarterly security training:

          It touches on passwords, social engineering, etc. The one from Macworld 2014 is more of a corporate IT security thing, aimed at Mac sysadmins.

  • Thank you, Lorna!

  • @eweidman

    Entertaining and well written. Needed to be said. Thank you! I bet you are a hell of a speaker!

  • webchick

    As someone who’s been sucked into the “Unicorn Law” a few times myself, I always make it a point to make sure if I’m giving a presentation on women in tech at a conference I also do a talk at that same conference on technology stuff. I totally agree that it’s extremely important for women in tech to be visibly out there being awesome technologists, not just talking about “woman problems.” 😛 It might be something to consider if you ever choose to give a diversity talk in the future (more varied voices in that circuit would be valuable, IMO).

  • That’s a good point, and certainly something to keep in mind. I still think the only way I’d consider it would be on a panel, where multiple perspectives are represented – and yes, only if I was presenting a technical talk at the same conference.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this post; this point needs making more often. There are a lot of people out there talking about women in tech, and it needs talking about, but that doesn’t mean every woman should be expected to speak about women in tech; that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s the same problem that has male accomplishments lauded as “a $ROLE” and female accomplishments lauded as “a female $ROLE”.

    Thank you for standing up for this point, and for setting a good example as a technologist/engineer. Here’s hoping that one day nobody will see any reason to qualify that as “female technologist” or “female engineer”.

  • kundasang

    This post made my day. You rock.

  • rsanchez1

    Being a technology expert qualifies you to talk about technology at a tech conference. The problem from the conference organizer’s perspective is they can’t just bring men in to talk about women in tech. It’s “simply being a woman in tech” that legitimizes a women in tech talk. It’s not about qualifications, it’s about actually being listened.

    I think the reason they went to the women in tech angle right away is because this is a current issue in tech, and the conference organizers want to reflect that. No doubt the audience will get used to seeing women talking about actual tech stuff. A conference will still want to talk about the latest topics of interest for their audience.

    • I completely understand why they went that way, @rsanchez1:disqus. My point is that it’s disappointing when the assumption is made that while I am a woman in tech, that would be the thing I want to talk about. They’re allowed to not select me because I don’t want to talk about women in tech, and I’m allowed to be annoyed that their approach to solving for women in tech is to have women there to speak only about women in tech. When the only women speakers men see are ones talking about women in tech, it does everyone a disservice, because it reinforces the perception that while we exist in this space, we’re not really qualified to speak about tech things.

      My position is that some of the women in tech issues will solve themselves as men and women both start seeing more women talking about technology. It’s still unusual to see women speakers (talking about tech) at tech conferences right now. When that changes, it will help change the perception that we should be allowed but not respected for our tech chops.

  • Anomalous

    Bro here. Totally with you on this one. It is getting to the point that whenever I’m about to see or watch a talk by a tech lady, my first thought is whether this is going to be another women in tech sesh. Guess what, I’ve grown up with women in tech, I’m cool with women in tech, women are great, I love women, now please tell me something interesting about tech. This is why my eyes and ears are here at this point in time.

  • Love it. I also hope event organizers stop setting up “women in tech” pannels every time someone asks why there aren’t more women speakers at the conference. I’d rather get in a boxing match than be on another one of those. Creating these categories, reinforcing these categories doesn’t solve any problems. Let technologists talk about technology and anthropologists talk about social issues.

    • I’m not sure it’s a good idea that we stop talking about it altogether. There is a clear case for increased diversity in tech, and since it’s currently white male dominated, sometimes these discussions can help lend perspective, help them understand why diversity matters, and hopefully end up with some practical ways to work towards more diversity.

      My problem is more that so often, the only women speakers are ones there to speak about gender in tech, which then makes it look like that’s all we’re good for talking about.

      I think the diversity conversations are important, they just can’t be the only conversations we get invited to at conferences.

      • I agree. That was my point too. That most women in tech get invited to do women in tech talks, and in most cases in response to criticism that there aren’t more women speakers at tech conferences. This just happened at TechWeek Chicago – they were accused of sexism and their response was to propose yet another panel to discuss women in tech.

  • ultimatedelman

    Reminded me of this Morgan Freeman quote, but swap “sexism” for “racism”. I don’t think we should stop talking about it altogether, but talking about it all the time does more harm than good, I think.

  • tzakrajsek

    Would be nice if the tech world didn’t include any gender commentary at all because gender is the least significant attribute of an engineer. Thanks for a great read.

  • bravo. bravo.

  • prisca

    hear! Hear!
    thanks for this excellent post 🙂

  • papayasoft

    Excellent, thanks. Snipe renews her reputation – at least in my eyes – as a reliable source for cogent good sense.

  • Natalia

    Finding your blog has made my day. I’m so glad I’m not the only female dev that feels this way. Thank you.

  • thepast

    I hate to be so negative and yet I bet the initialresponse is no.
    I’ve never seen you but I guess your attractive and gorgous. So the negative and positive might apply including: Token, representative, know them al(like yourmodern day roledex would include every aspired woman of every race on the planet simply because she picked up a keyboard), symathetic strond, independent, a challenge, and strong. Your a statistic for yourr sex And a go to example (if you will the day you fuck up) for your entire sex. Answercontinue to thrive and others will follow.

  • snake

    Seems like a rather outdated topic anyway, women in technology is as normal as being gay these days,

    • Yeah, except it’s not. Not in the US anyway. Still very few of us in tech, in the US anyway.

      • snake

        I know quite a few among my tech friends, but overall most women are not remotely interested in this it is bound to be far less in the industry just as you don’t. Find many men interested in fashion and beauty. But I wouldn’t have have thought any employer these days would choose based on gender alone, in fact the bias is prob slightly in the female applicants favour I would think for several reasons.
        As an employer and an ex developer I found that In a male dominated tech team, women tended to bring more organisation and calm the boys down a bit, they are usually more sociable and not so introverted and shy and thus better at communicating with clients, less arrogant and usually better at writing documentation.

        • Ugh. We’re not really going to entertain the notion that there aren’t more women in tech because they’re not interested in it, are we? It’s not 1995 anymore. We know there are pipeline problems, subtle influence problems, and about 100 other things. It’s just a naive argument to make, and one that denies that there isa problem – and make no mistake, there is.

          I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained it pretty well:

          (Tho I hate myself a little for posting a link to Upworthy.)

          • snake

            I can of course only speak from personal experience, and in my lifetime I have met very few women remotely interested in tech, Ymmv of course.
            I realise we are in different countries and attitudes may be different, but most of my online friends have always been yanks since my times of phone phreaking to bbs systems on the c64 in the 80’s and one thing that that has always remained the same with everyone I know is their partners are usually not remotely interested in what they do. if you look at gaming instead perhaps which is purely anyone’s choice, how many female gamers are out there? I don’t. Know as I don’t go to gamer confs or expos, but I would bet money the ratio of men to women is quite high still even now.

          • Women make up almost half the gamers out there.

            But more importantly, you’re missing the obvious problems of pipelines, young women being actively discouraged or more subtly discouraged from STEM careers, the hostile environments for women in today’s more brogrammer-centeric startup communities, and so on and so on. You’re massively oversimplifying an issue that you’re just not very informed on. You can make personal assumptions that women just don’t want to be in tech, however it doesn’t make it actually true, and frankly, we already figured that out a while ago.

            A 2008 Harvard Business Review research report (PDF) on women in science, engineering, and technology, which found:

            “Between ages 25 and 30, 41% of the young talent with credentials in those subject matters are female … [but] 52% of this talent drops out … The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments … 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment.”


            There’s a ton of material out there if you’re looking to understand the problem a little better.

          • snake

            ok I give in 🙂

          • Sigh. This wasn’t a contest. I wasn’t trying to *win*, so I’m sorry you “give in”. The point is that you are in a position to help, if you had two shits to rub together. Which I guess you don’t.

          • snake

            People tend to not give a shit when you ate rude to them.

          • Pretty sure you didn’t give a shit before. If you did, you wouldn’t see it as a contest to win, but an opportunity to understand something you were previously unaware of.

          • snake

            You clearly have a very big chip on your shoulder and an axe to grind with anyone who has an opinion, as it is very clear to anyone with open eyes from my earlier post that I am very pro womem in I.T and have employed several myself. I suggest you go back and read from the start without the attitude.
            Your attitude has the opposite effect to what you think, insulting and attacking people. Is not the way to make them care about something, it would only serve to drive people further away and make them not care and have a bad opinion on the subject where before they had none, and this is something I have seen many times.
            When I first came here I thought you seemed cool and intelligent, bot you just seem like a stroppy bitch who is best avoided unless you want an argument.
            Was that the impression you hoped to give?

          • I have no chips on my shoulder and no axes to grind, but the suggestion that women aren’t in IT because they have no interest has been disproven over and over again. When I offered helpful supporting information (and suggested that perhaps your anecdotal evidence is not as useful as actual data on pipeline problems, retaining women in IT, etc, you told me I “won”. As if the goal was not to inform you, but simply to badger you into submission, which it obviously wasn’t (or I wouldn’t have bothered tracking down actual studies.)

            Dismissing the notion that there is a problem is enormously disrespectful. Just because you don’t perceive or recognize the problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s as disrespectful as telling a person of color that we don’t have problems with racism anymore.

            But really, what should I expect from someone who opted to call me a “stroppy bitch”, as opposed to considering that their opinion might not be correct here? My attitude has served me quite well, but thanks so much for your feedback. I’ll be sure to watch my tone and be nice to the men who see it in their hearts to comment on my posts.

          • snake

            actually I never dismissed anything or decided that my opinion was right, unlike yourself, I treat an opinion as exactly that, an opinion and not fact and I do not try to ram my opinions down people throats.
            I simply have better things to do than waste my time trying to have a discussion with someone who is so aggressive and not capable of having a sensible discussion without resorting to being rude and insulting if you do not agree 100% immediately with everything you say.
            You do indeed have a VERY big chip on your shoulder, it couldn’t be more obvious, and it is probably towards men in general judging by your comments this discussion.

            the sad thing is that if you are actually advising other women to take this “fuck you” attitude, then you are not helping anyone and just making the situation worse for any woman that follows your advise.
            Certainly after speaking to you, I certainly can see how an employer might end up with a more negative attitude and end up choosing a man over a woman.
            It is rather like a butcher promoting vegetarian food.

            I have unsubscribed from this thread and won’t be responding further.

          • Perhaps more importantly, you should give a shit because it matters, not because I want you to give a shit about it. That’s like saying you’re not going to care about human rights anymore because someone who feels strongly about human rights was mean to you.

      • snake

        I know quite a few among my tech friends, but overall most women are not remotely interested in this it is bound to be far less in the industry just as you don’t. Find many men interested in fashion and beauty. But I wouldn’t have have thought any employer these days would choose based on gender alone, in fact the bias is prob slightly in the female applicants favour I would think for several reasons.
        As an employer and an ex developer I found that In a male dominated tech team, women tended to bring more organisation and calm the boys down a bit, they are usually more sociable and not so introverted and shy and thus better at communicating with clients, less arrogant and usually better at writing documentation.

  • Carlos B

    Thank you for your candid comments. Honest and a correct. There should be no difference because of gender on technical matters. Or any, for that matter. Unfortunately, there is an overall agenda. The agenda is feminism. At it’s worst. Basically, all men must line up to whatever the feminists insist upon within their current workplace. Insidious.

    • Feminism is neither insidious nor what’s at work here. You completely missed the point.

      • Carlos B

        I stand corrected if I missed the point.

        Your article stated that you did not want to JUST speak at the conference on Women in Technology.

        You mentioned, quoting: “They replied (politely) that they were hoping I would talk about increasing the number of women in technology.”
        My heart sank. I replied (also politely) that I don’t typically present on women in technology issues, and asked how they would feel about a “diversity in tech talk”, instead of one aimed just towards women in tech, since my position tends to be one that empowers all that feel disenfranchised, not just women.

        “the assumption that of course I’d want to talk about women in tech “because VAGINA!” is incorrect, and I find it a little bit shitty, to be honest.
        ” but I want to level the playing field in society, not just in tech. And not just for women.”

        My take on your conversation is the you want to include both genders in technology, not just women.

        The conference group –that chose to go another way — is the group I am referring to. Their feminist agenda.

        This, to my view of your article is honest and offers a professional representation of how you feel about technology.

        The group that changed their mind was interested in pursuing their agenda. That is, the feminism agenda, etc.

        That was the point that I took from your article.

  • It’s a funny one – I’m a guy and I’ve worked with (or for) women from day one. I avoid working with douche bags and so I simply don’t see much douche behaviour. Everyone I work with would call it out without missing a step, which has the result that we actually need to be reminded from time to time that the gender inequality issues exist.