Why it matters to have women speaking at tech conferences

Last year, I delivered more technical talks than previous years. At each conference, I was often one of the few women participating as a speaker. I find speaking at conferences a fun way to connect with my customers and share my passion about technology. But even more, presenting is my contribution to diversity and inclusion for women in tech. I take speaking seriously for three reasons.

1. Women are a critical part of tech

By delivering tech talks, I demonstrate in a very public way that women drive tech innovation, build tech products, and solve the hardest tech problems. I help amplify the message that women add value and impact tech. I hope that by demonstrating my technical skills in a public way, I get more men to say, “We need someone like her on our team,” and help accelerate the desire to hire and develop women in tech. I also hope to inspire women to join and continue pursuing tech.

2. Women explain concepts differently

As a woman in tech, I experience the world differently and therefore bring a unique mindset to the table. This diversity means I present topics differently, which helps my audience think differently, open their minds, and understand concepts more deeply. For example, I changed overused examples of “foo” and “bar” to “bubbles” and “pickles” because why not? This made AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) policies interesting in a new way for my audience. The content stuck because I explained it differently.

3. Women are customers, too

If you look at your customer base, you will see that your customers most likely consist of men and women. Shocking, I know. If your customers are showing up at a conference to hear about your technologies, you want all of your customers to relate to the content, presenters, and examples. Having a diverse set of speakers in your lineup can help you connect with all of your customers.

As I think about my progress in this space, I couldn’t help but notice that others are not joining in. I am usually one of the few women in the speaker ready room, and keynotes are still driven by men. Being visible is a critical part of the women-in-tech story, yet women are not presenting about tech. Chalk it up to availability, nerves, or that we are simply already doing too much as women in a male-dominated industry. Regardless, we need more women on stage. But it can’t come from just women — we all need to chip in. This “we” includes men, women, managers, leaders, businesses, planners, teachers, and everyone with a connection to the tech world.

Play a part

Want to play a part in more women speaking at tech conferences? What can you do? Here are some ideas.

Managers and leaders: Encourage

Encourage women to speak by tapping them on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, I think this topic would be interesting for our customers and I’d like you to present it this year.” Identify woman on your team that are passionate about tech and sharing it. Work with them to develop their first talk, or better yet, give them a previously successful talk that they can deliver again themselves. Coach them, give them time to practice, and show up to cheer them on.

When I first started at Amazon, I was terrified to give a talk because I thought I wasn’t technical enough. Turns out this is a common misconception, and I’d recommend Abby Fuller’s talk to learn more. It wasn’t until my manager said, “Brigid, you are going to give the talk on IAM policies this year.” You are going to. Gulp. I was nervous but also excited. But knowing he trusted me to do it encouraged me to trust myself, too. A few years later, I am giving lots of talks and having tons of fun doing it!

Event influencers: Include

Start by asking yourselves, “How can we ensure our speakers represent the diversity of our customers?” If you oversee event content, asking this question is critical to ensuring the content resonates with your customers and including a variety of speakers. Too often, we put only the individuals with a higher title or reputation on stage. This only perpetuates the problem. Take a risk on an up-and-coming female speaker because she may surprise you and delight your customers.

A quick note on what not to do. You may be tempted to have a quota of the number of women speakers at an event. Tread carefully because quotas can turn into, “Can you join this dude on stage so that we can meet our numbers?” It has happened. Heck, it happened to me. Include women speakers in a positive and genuine way — not by chasing a quota or percentage.

Women: Support each other

Set an example and support each other. If you are a speaker, encourage other women to help them believe they can give technical talks. If you’re new or curious about speaking, dig deep and find the courage to commit to a talk (scary, I know!). Ask for support as you need it. I am happy to be that person for you. Let’s change the narrative.

The community: Recommend, promote, remain positive

I’ve had the internet community, customers, and my leaders at work recommend my talks, promote them on Twitter, and ask me to present more. This feels good and encourages me to keep speaking. Additionally, keep the comments positive and think twice about negative comments. The internet is not always nice, which can scare people away from speaking again. Also, if you are in education, help women find their voice by having them present and speak in class. Getting early experience with public speaking contributes to successful presentations later in their careers.

We have to continue working on diversity and inclusion as it applies to women in tech. I hope that someday soon, I will walk into a conference’s speaker ready room and find it filled with women.

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