Why I Won’t Be Speaking at the Grace Hopper Conference

Gayle Laakmann McDowell
3 min readMar 1, 2016

You’d think I’d speak at Grace Hopper, right? It’s right up my alley — women, tech, etc.

So let’s cut to the chase. This is why you won’t see me there: Speakers must pay to speak [1].

I do lots of talks — over 100 per year — and I almost always charge something. Doing a talk isn’t free. It costs me time, and therefore money. This is my job, and therefore I’d like to be compensated for it.

Importantly, an organization paying something [2] also sends a signal that they value my presence. This isn’t vanity; it’s just good business. If they value my presence, then they’ll probably consider appropriate time slots and they’ll probably put some effort into advertising the talk. They’ll do their part to ensure there’s an audience. I am more likely to get something out of the talk if the organizer is willing to put something into it.

GHC (Grace Hopper Celebration) is indeed sending a signal, but the opposite one [2]. Not only do they not cover a speaker’s fee or travel, but they actually require speakers to purchase a (discounted) conference ticket. A speaker is charged to attend.

EDIT/UPDATE: Unlike in past years, where speakers had to purchase a ticket for the day of their talk, this year GHC is comping the day-of pass for speakers (although not for people presenting posters). Speakers still must purchase a ticket for the remaining days. This is a good start. It somewhat mitigates the issues described here, but it does not by any means eliminate the signaling or the financial burden.

To be very clear, this is not about the money (for me, anyway). It’s about the message that they’re sending. They don’t value my presence; I’m just another customer. I conclude from this that it will probably not be a good use of my time to speak. No thanks.

It also means they have an incentive to have lots of speakers, even if that brings down the quality somewhat. Speakers have dollar signs attached to them. Conference goers should be concerned about this.

Some speakers, especially those who are not tied to a big company, won’t able to afford to speak. This again brings down the quality of the conference, and creates a bias towards more privileged speakers. This is something attendees should be concerned about too.

The setting of a women’s conference makes GHC’s policy extra problematic. Women are already less likely to ask and advocate for themselves. This is the first speaking opportunity for many younger women, and GHC is sending them a message that they shouldn’t expect to be compensated for their work.

It is of course true (and I’m saying this in part to preempt the Internet haters) that GHC has the “right” to charge its speakers. Perhaps this is a simple business calculation that GHC has made around speakers and dollar signs. The armchair economist in me can somewhat appreciate that.

I also have the “right” to interpret the signal they’re sending, to not speak as a result, and to advocate for change. You can join me if you’d like. Maybe they’ll change their policy if enough people are upset by it, or if they realize the signal they’re sending.

Or, if you think this policy is fine [3] and decide to speak/attend, that’s cool. I’ve heard good things, so have fun if you go.

[1] How much I charge varies depending on the kind of exposure the talk offers, the mission of the organization, and other factors. Sometimes I will do talks where the organizer just covers travel. But at least that’s some form of sacrifice on their part. Their willingness to sacrifice increases the odds that this will be worthwhile for someone, ideally for both me and the audience. It sends a message — an important message.

[2] This applies to speakers who apply. Their super famous speakers might well be compensated.

[3] As for the GHC organizers, if they ever read this: I harbor no hard feelings or ill-will towards you. I’m not saying that I would *never* speak at GHC (only that I wouldn’t speak through the apply-to-speak path, as those speakers aren’t valued enough to make it a good use of my time). I’m not even saying you’re making the wrong decision. You know far more about your goals, audience, and financial situation than I do. The policy (the harsher past policy and the more moderate current one) did signal that these speakers aren’t particularly valued. It’s not necessarily bad to send this signal if the message is actually correct.



Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Founder/CEO of CareerCup. Coder. Author of Cracking the {Coding Interview, PM Interview, Tech Career}. Consults on technical hiring and interviewing.