Sexism at WebDU


As I have previous discussed this was my first . I was hoping that it was not going to be a “boys own web geeks club”. And thinking back on it now that I am sitting back here at home among those I hold dear, I think it was. I approximated while at WebDU that the percentage of female attendees was well below 5%. The room was just a male testosterone fest at some points.

As Katrina discusses there was a lot of sexist comments from the audience and speakers on the podium. Personally I didn’t find the adverts (case in point the Coldfusion one) offensive. As I took it in context of the 1950’s extreme stereotype that it projected.

However comments about people at the conference and other female attendees to me was just as disgusting. It was the level and type of sexism that would not be tolerated in a professional workplace. So why should it be tolerated at a professional web industry conference. The talk at the bar or later in the evenings is not what I’m discussing here. I’m not going to repeat the comments as I don’t want to embarrass the people they were directed towards.

It turned me off. To the point where I just couldn’t be bothered talking with some male colleagues at the conference (unless I knew them from before). Hence I think I may have over hassled any non-male at the conference a bit. Sorry if I did. I’m generally a social person I like to meet new people and talk. I feel very sorry for anyone that was offended by some of the comments, all I can say is that not all people at the conference where there for a geek testosterone fest.

I’ve said this before, but I also noted out of the wide range of talent (gender aside) only one female speaker could be found. This was frankly disgusting. I know there are a few star ColdFusion / Flex / and Flash non male gurus in Australia and New Zealand. Seems no one bothered to approach them that I know of.

(Edit – Clarfication : The Conference is not disgusting,  it’s the state of affairs, one female speaker,  surely the community can come up with more than that.  Come on stop leaving it to the organisers.)

Well we can’t change the attendees attitude, but we can change the environment and the presentation of what is cool by the industry leaders promoting the right attitude. We need the “Web Rock Gods” to lead the way on this one.

I know a lot of conferences run with a code of conduct, and at the speaker briefs (before the conference) they ensure people know what is acceptable and what is not. Forcing some speakers to redo slides or entire talks. This should be adopted across the board in the web industry

In answer to the criticism of the . Okay this is like web-geek open mic at the pub. The organisers have no idea what they are going to get. And to vet them would be unfair. The only way to stop some of the sexism at the webjam is to change the attitude in general.

So again I put out the call, what would help women attend these events.

Update: Kay Smoljak, veteran MXer has her say on the topic. With an interesting conclusion.

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  1. While I wasn’t present at the webDU, I have to agree that the web industry have a very low female presenters. There are low female attendees compared the the males but I think I can hazard that it’s slowly increasing.

    There are however quite a number of female web professions and they just need to be pushed to the podium to present their awesome views of the web and how they are contributing.

    I’ve met more female web professionals at BarCampSydney who i’ve never met before then at any web-gathering and this tells me that they might be keen to be more involved.

    I’d like to point out that Russ (edit – Russ Weakley) tries have to an equal number of both male and female presenters at the Web Standards Group meetings which is a great start. And I think organisers can take a similar path and have atleast 1 female presenter to start with and then increase it. I think this will also work if we can get more women attending the web-gatherings.

    While I agree with you that webjam is a open-forum where they don’t know who is going to present what, I think they have a great opportunity to actually do something too. Rather than having 20 random people presenting, they can use their contacts to have a ratio of both sexes presenting, or maybe just a women-only presenters. 🙂

  2. I would hate to be invited to present anywhere simply to fill the female quota. Of course I would like to see more women presenting, if they would like to. However, to promote a speaker simply because she’s female is insulting.

  3. @Lisa – totally agree, but I would like a little balance, I know the people are out there.

  4. I organise the speaker list each year for webDU. The call for speakers is a public announcement that goes out on the website, many blogs, community mailing lists and former speakers. We also make specific invitations to key speakers. This year we had some 46 submissions — 2 from women. We chose the best presentations we could coordinate from this list. To choose women to speak because they are women is perhaps the most sexist thing I can think of. We chose the best people available to us. To suggest that somehow this is a conscious effort to exclude women is preposterous.

  5. I just gotta say I didn’t find the conference unwelcoming to attend, I thought the webjammers and the coldfusion “advert” were all pretty funny..

    I guess maybe you heard remarks from men that I didn’t, but on a whole all the guys I spoke to we’re open and friendly.

    I had a great time, and think that Geoff and his staff did a really great job.

  6. @Geoff. The main issue here is not the number of women presenters, mind you that could be better. But the air of sexism from some of the presenters and from some of the attendees (when out of ear shot of the few women present). And how we can stop this happening again.

    If I was new in the industry and female there is no way in hell I would attend a male focused event like WebDU without knowing some of the people before I attended. You put this on top of a sexist attitude (that is sadly still present in the industry) and the whole event would be very intimidating.

    Also, I am not for one minute suggesting anyone be selected to speak on gender alone. But I am suggesting fostering and allowing speakers to grow and develop from all branches on the community. The traditional “Call for Speakers” will generally not work for this type of fostering of speakers and sometimes a personalised one on one encouragement of new speakers is required (regardless of gender).

  7. With specific reference to the ratio of female speakers you say, “This was frankly disgusting”. All I can do is point out that although your suggestions are welcome, they are nevertheless impractical. The traditional call for speakers is all we have. It’s not surprising therefore that most conferences in the technology sector suffer from a similar female to male speaker ratio. For example,

  8. @Geoff – That doesn’t make the ratio right.

    We can’t expect more women to enter the Web Industry if they don’t have highly visible role models. I’m not saying to get women to speak just because of their gender alone. But as Industry Leaders there is a community moral duty to promote and foster the minorities.

    By the way I think Eric is a little off on this topic.

    Anyway it wasn’t the ratio that really shocked me, it was the dirty back room 1970ish sexist comments. Maybe I just spend too much time working with and around women. But it was uncalled for.

    I still think you should consider the Code of Conduct idea.

  9. I think there are two main issues here:

    One, the ratio of men to women presenters.
    Two, the perceived sexist tone of some of the presentations.

    I already mentioned above that I would find it insulting to be invited to speak simply because I am female. I would quite seriously like to see a show of hands by any girl/woman/lady/female who would happily and openly benefit from positive gender-based discrimination.

    I know for a fact that the Webjam organisers encourage and seek female presenters. There is a high ratio of women to men at the events and yet very few women have applied to present.

    It’s 2007 guys, women in IT are educated, smart people. If someone wants to present, all they have to do is send an email.

    In conference settings where presenters are invited to speak, sure there should be a concerted effort to maintain gender balance. But how do you do that with the attendees? Offer discounted tickets to women?

    With regard to sexist/discriminatory content, I personally didn’t take offence to anything at WebDU. But I do agree that presenters should be reminded that this type of content is unacceptable, prior to an event. No sane organiser wants to alienate their audience.

  10. Gary I take you as the kind of guy who would jump on to this bandwagon for the sole purpose of making yourself look good. I find it hard to believe you were involved in any of these so called conversations because i remember you as being the socially inept guy constantly sidling up to active conversations without even having the decency to introduce yourself. To be perfectly honest I found you creepy.

    This is my third conference and all I can say is the people i have socialised with at these events have been intelligent polite people and I find it hard to believe you could have struck out so badly in your random sidling that you ended up associating with so many crass sexist people. Although considering the wide range of age groups and the subject matter (flash/flex/web) i am sure it’s possible you listened in on some immature conversations at times.

    Seriously do you live in the same society as me? Are you the guy ringing channel 10 to complain about the TV all the time?

  11. Deri,

    Perhaps before you jump on your slander train, it would be a good idea to know Gary.

    I find your comments about Gary as being “socially inept” perplexing at best.

    Gary is a well respected member of the web community in WA and as far as I’m concerned, you comments aren’t worth the time it took for me to laugh at them.

  12. @Deri – As for jumping on the band wagon, this subject is a personal passion of mine, it’s something I think conference organisers should be addressing. Would this have been better off as an email to Geoff Bowers, maybe. Would Geoff have paid attention to a single email, maybe not.

    By “third conference” I’ll assume you mean MX, WebDU conference. This being my first webDU conference (but not first conference), I didn’t mingle with one group of people all the time. In general I found people to be of a good nature, some friendly, some very rude and arrogant, this was to be expected, it takes all kinds. But I did find that under current I had not expected.

    The immature conversation didn’t come from immature people by the way. It was limited, it was not over heard, but it was uncalled for.

    I’m sorry if you found me “creepy”. If I didn’t remember to introduce myself to every single person I “sidled up to” I’m sorry. I think I may have walked to three active conversations the whole time I was there, this was impolite.

    Mind you people introducing themselves does cut both ways, when its not done directly by anyone in a group, it can be seen as elitist etc.

  13. Gary,

    You are being unfair to WebDU and making this into something it clearly is not. Your fight isn’t with WebDU, its much bigger problem and picking a fight with WebDU is giving you only 15mins of soundbytes and thats it.

    I’ll be the first to champion the cause of women in the IT Sector (I report to an exceptionally talented female daily, and the big big boss whom we all report to, is just as exceptional and runs Microsoft Australia. Gender has no issue and never has been except until tonight and i say this as now your asking folks like me to draw contrast to the conversation and keep score on women vs men).

    I’ve employed countless females in my career, and i’ve always based it on merit. I couldn’t care less if there was 2% women in the industry of choice, if anyone has the guts to frunt an interview with me, gender be damned they better show up with passion and skills to match.

    WebDU speaker selection is based on volunteering your topic. Its hard to get accepted into the WebDU program and I was rejected this year as it wasn’t ontopic. I could play the “Hey no fair card..” and begin to spew forth a Microsoft vs Adobe card, but in the end the topic was weak and Geoff made the call. In the end it was the right one.

    Point: I could easily turn the entire WebDU into a whole new political agenda, but that just devalues the overall proposition it offers. Instead of berating the WebDU conference for not being aggresive in finding females to talk, why not berate the females you mentioned for not volunteering to talk! what’s their reasoning?

    I think this is a whole seperate agenda and its much bigger then WebDU and you are clearly using this as vechile to promote this agenda.

    I’ll help in anyway I can to beat the war drum to raise awareness around Women in the IT sector, but not like this as its wrong.

  14. Definition of sexism:
    “The belief that one gender is superior to or more valuable than the other”.
    I would have been shocked if any of the speakers or attendees at webDu would have been sexist. I hope you are not trying desperately to get the attention of the community because that would be so wrong and pernicious. So if there is a woman who attended webDU 2007 and could correlate your post – which is not the case so far (see Christine’s and Lisa’s comments) – please comment on that.

  15. Gary, you are casting some very serious aspersions about both the organisers and speakers at the conference.

    At this time, there has been no official complaint of any nature made either during or after the conference from any delegate or staff member; male or female. If you have any specific complaints of “sexist” remarks from the podium I would suggest you contact us directly so that we can deal with the relevant speakers accordingly. We have all the audio from all the tracks, with the exception of the webJam, so it will not be difficult at all to verify your accusations.

    With respect to delegates, we’re obviously not in a position to instruct adults on how they might conduct themselves in public. However, if you have any substantiated claims of misconduct by individuals we can certainly consider barring them from future events. Again I invite you to help us address the issues you have raised.

    Furthermore, we’d be delighted to see more than the lone two submissions we had from female speakers, so anything you can do to spread the word and help increase that percentage would be greatly appreciated.

    Julie Steadman
    Conference Director

  16. @Scott – Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed myself had a good time. Missed out on catching up with a few people (as you do). WebDU was good. But it was average. It wasn’t as intense as it could have been.

    It’s not the number or gender of the speakers (mind you I was I little sick of the Adobe line) that was of major concern.

    Or the attendee ratio, that I did expect. I was hoping I was wrong, but no problem really, that’s a bigger issue. It was the conduct of some people that just got under my skin. I think a speaker briefing would have solved this.

    My question remains how do we solve this?

    Not here that’s for sure. But I just want conference and event organisers to know they have to be aware of the issues at hand.

  17. I don’t think there is a problem per say. I see a lot of women in the work force daily, and I’m amazed that just because a female chooses not to be visible is enough to warrant a “Where are they” cause.

    Example, I work with Anna Liu here at Microsoft Australia. Anna, is a vocal person whom is after the same quest we are talking about here, getting more women into the IT space.


    Anna is also helping to co-ordinate the REMIX conference we are putting on (Downunder Version of that our US counterparts are doing next month).

    I’ll actively welcome any ideas on making this happen, but i’ll be honest in saying that its merit selection first and foremost. It has to be as one could easily argue that men get dropped due to gender selection, so wouldn’t it be fair to state that they aren’t being chosen fairly?

    It’s why when you do HR Selection & Recruitment training in all corporations, they strongly disagree with gender preferencing.

    It’s not fair.

    Women today and generations going forward have ample and if not more and more choices to make on their own accord. I think role models like Anna for example are worth taking stock of, as she not only has a balanced family / work life but somewhere in the middle she managed to gain herself a doctorate.

    Point is, there is always a path and choice now and to play the gender war drum, i’m not buying it anymore. 20 years ago, maybe, but in 2007 – it’s not fair.

    I draw context to women like Anna Liu, Tracey Fellows and countless more within Microsoft who have gotten to fairly unique and powerful positions because of passion and choice, not gender.

  18. @Jim – The comments were not levelled at any woman face to face. Even so it’s not acceptable. And I don’t need to raise “standing”.

    I have had a discussion on this topic with Julie and Geoff.

    And comments here are going in the wrong direction.

    So comments are now closed.

Comments are now closed, move along, nothing to see here.