Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Should I Defend My Cred? (...Yes)

Tonight, I gave another Ignite talk on "Google Wave & Collaborative Mapping"/. The talk went well, and it was a great opportunity to hear what other people are thinking of doing with Wave. But, something interesting happened after...

I was asked by a speaker to basically defend my cred- as he looked at my appearance (a short green skirt & t-shirt), saw that I gave a presentation that glossed over the technical details, and assumed that I wasn't that technical. When I explained to him that I actually do write code, he was fairly taken aback. He then recommended that I start off each presentation by clarifying my level of knowledge, and getting "respect" from the audience. His basic theory is that girls are not respected as technical peers until they sufficiently prove themselves, and apparently, particularly not if the girl is decent looking. Now, I want to explore that theory further (outside of the noisiness and distractions of the crowded pub).

When I was in high school, I participated in MUN (Model United Nations), where high schoolers would be delegates for a particular country and argue position papers. At the conferences, I remember that I myself mentally discounted the ability of the female delegates when they went up to speak. I was willing to believe in them, but only after they really showed their stuff. I didn't have this same feeling with the guys, and I came to the conclusion that there are some areas where one gender garners more of an immediate respect than others. I decided then that I would have to come off as incredibly confident (but not bitchily so) in order to win the respect of the MUN people, as I assumed that they would have that same accidental bias. The bias made sense to me in the area of speaking - men naturally have deep, confident voices, and so you just want to believe in that voice. I don't know how to describe women's voices, but it's certainly not like that.

I think the respect bias may extend beyond debating in the tech world, however. When I look at the Twitter account for a self-professed "girl geek", I grow immediately suspicious of their geeky claims. When I see a girl go up to present on the stage, I usually assume they will talk about something less technical. Maybe this is because my suspicions are usually confirmed -- because we live in a world where we try to extend a geek label as far wide as possible, to try and sneakily get more girls "in CS." Maybe it's because girls naturally hate girls (a well documented phenomenom in women's magazines), and this is an extension of the phenomenon.

So, I'm biased, he's biased, and potentially others are as well. I don't know that we'll be able to eliminate our subconcious tendencies, but we can help people squash their own.

When you give a talk, always start off with an introduction slide that describes your background and experience. If you're an expert on the topic, admit it (humbly). If you're just learning and wanted to share your learnings, admit it.

I think part of the reason that we try to rely on other (possibly incorrect) clues to help us form opinions is that people don't give us enough information about their credentials. And I don't think that we mind if someone is or isn't technical - we just want to know, one way or the other, and not feel like we're being misled. We respect people for who they are, but we don't respect people if we suspect that they're trying to be something they're not.

Thoughts welcome, of course. :)

24 comments:

Geoff McQueen said...

It depends a bit on the purpose, but if you're there to share information and insight that people can and should benefit from hearing, and their bias gets in the way, then it is their loss, not yours.

If, however, you really need to convince them of your point of view and/or "sell" your message, then establishing independent credibility can certainly help; there are a lot more entertaining ways to do this than just the resume run down; an anecdote that puts you at the heart of something people already respect - "I was working on the maps team while I was still at college, but it wasn't until I put together the live bushfire danger tracker during the fires earlier this year that I truly appreciated how important maps can be" is probably going to be much more effective (and entertaining).

rcantor said...

I think knowledge doesn't depend of gender or race or religion or even by clothes you wear... I love discuss with both technical and practical people... better if is with a girl...

Brian said...

Every IT department has the Insecure Guy (yes, they are all guys)who wants to put all who cross their path in their place. A healthy percentage of client demos have included the requisite pissing match with the SysAdmin guy, the Oracle guy, or the ArcObjects guy.

But leading a presentation with credentials is not the way to go: the resume recitation can come of as needy of approval. A quick comment in passing that anyone wanting to deep dive into the technical stuff (insert relevant terms e.g. "object inheritance", "strong data typing", whatever) can chat afterwards is enough to put That Guy on notice that his annoying challenges will be interpreted as interrupting and slowing down the presentation for everyone.

And yes, you being a woman does make Insecure Guy even more irritable as he so often has substituted putative technical competence for social confidence.

In short, don't cater to the haters.

Brian

segdeha said...

I think he (and you) are being chauvinistic. Maybe this bias is more widespread than I'd like to believe, but I'd like to hope most people are enlightened enough at this point not to assume someone's not technical based on appearance.

In any case, what difference does it matter how technical you are if everything you say is accurate? If that guy wanted an answer to a technical question, he could have asked and you could have gone as deep as he needed (having seen you present, I can say this with confidence).

Skud said...

Paraphrasing Avenue Q, "everyone's a little bit sexist." We live in a sexist society and we all (women included) get enculturated into that. So yeah, I will admit that I have to fight against initial assumptions and stereotypes when I see a woman get up to speak... it's a matter of constant awareness for me, and I keep working at it, but I'm not 100% there yet.

As a speaker, I do try and give me credentials at the start, or *even better* get the person who's introducing me to do so. It's OK to send the event organisers a short bio and ask them to introduce you, and sometimes that helps with cred. I tend to just go for the factual: "I have been developing in X language for Y years" or "wrote the Z toolset/library/whatever" or "I work for Q company on this project in this role". You can also send a bio to the group who's hosting the talk for them to put on their website, send down their mailing list, or whatever.

I also like Geoff's anecdotal approach -- dropping things like that into the presentation are great, as are certain kinds of geeky jokes that demonstrate a) that you get the humour, and b) that you part of "us" not "them" (where "them" is probably marketing/sales).

I remember one notable LUG presentation when I was talking about a Linux distro I was working on, and some of the questioners assumed I was a sales person, so asked some pointed technical question hoping to catch me out. The only possible way to deal with that was to answer to the best of my technical knowledge, which I did, and I didn't get any more "test" questions after that. (The funny thing was that the guy who was presenting at the LUG meeting with me *was* the sales guy, and couldn't have answered the same question.)

Rich Treves said...

I really don't think you should ever start a presentation with your relevant experience. You should start with something that gets peoples attention and sets the scene, your experience comes out in all sorts of ways in a presentation anyway.

The comments above about mr insecure are wise

alang said...

FWIW, I agree with Brian. Depending on the forum, a list of credentials could be a jarring way to start a talk and, besides, it wouldn't suit your entertaining and informal presentation manner. On the other hand, if happened to mention that wrote the default maps gadget that ships with Wave, that ought to get the message across in a maps+wave talk :)

Nice post. More please.

Pamela Fox said...

Thanks for everyone's comments.

I didn't mean that I should start off a preso rattling off my resume, but that I should start with some description of my skills. I think having those be anecdotal or said by the introducing person are both good ideas. I do usually do something like that, but it's something I forgot in the 5 minute Ignite, and it was interesting to see the result.

I like to speak on lots of topics, even if they're not actually my expertise - so that's why I think it's fair that I introduce how I am associated with that topic. When I did the linguistics ignite 2 weeks ago, I started off by saying that I loved words as a hobby. When I did the GAE Java talk, I told the audience that I used to love Java as a kid, but I'd really only used it recently in the 2 days before my talk. Preparing the audience likes that helps them receive the presentation the right way.

The point that I really got tonight was that I may need to do this more than a guy. (Even if that does mean we're all "a little bit sexist").

janet said...

Pamela - I applaud you for putting this out there. I think there is also a question here about why more females don't select a geek career. Bias perhaps?

Nick said...

I like it when a presenter says if they come from a coding background or not. Maybe a slide with a pointer to some the person's work is useful. It helps with expectations for the presentation.

I find this information useful regardless of gender.

Phil Henley said...

I was there last night. Only one or two others mentioned their background and, even then, it was only very briefly. I don't think anyone expected it within such a short timeframe.
It's disappointing to hear this came up afterwards because I thought Pamela's talk was great (as were many others) - although wave invites for all would have tipped it over the top...

. I just can't see that a guy would have been challenged the same way. I wonder if there is some element of Google-envy at play as well

Brett Morgan said...

I admit I'm having an emotional reaction here. Having run a number of Wave user groups where you were, by far, the star attraction of the night, for your vitality, for your vivacious, your intellect, and the depth of your knowledge.

Truthfully, I dread having to run a wave user group without you there, you are the star of the show.

The fact that someone is having an emotional reaction to the fact that you are a bloody good coder, as well as teacher, and female to boot... my immediate reaction is unprintable.

I suppose you could stand on stage and try and defend your honour, or you could invite your assailant to come watch you dance full time at a wave user group, and hear the respect that room full of alpha geeks has for you.

Yeah. I'm a cranky bear when someone doesn't respect you. Not cool.

Pamela Fox said...

@Phil If you're a developer, sign up for a sandbox account. We're processing those quick now (within a week).

I don't mean to make people protective of me or defend me. My intention is to point out that it's useful to establish your background for an audience, and perhaps particularly necessary as a girl.

I'm not offended as much as reminded, and wanted to explore that.

Pia Waugh said...

I agree with Brian. You'll always have people test you, and some be suspicious due to your gender (in Australia anyway). I find myself waiting for most new people I meet to demonstrate their technical prowess themselves rather than take them at their word regardless of their gender (can you tell I'm being targetting by marketers atm!! :/ ).

But over-compensating because a few people will make assumptions just allows them to maintain those assumptions. Why not gently a) clarify to them your knowledge and b) gently point out their assumption is unfortunately (and probably unintentionally) a contributing factor to low numbers of technical women, and to the bad name the industry/community has earned. Most men and women I've met who assume otherwise are receptive to that if delivered right.

Why shouldn't we all just wait to see what the person (whatever their gender) says or does to make that or indeed any call?

I found myself more suspicious of women at one stage, and when I realised it, I fixed the attitude. Because I realised it was inherited, unfair and frankly helping to maintain the status quo attitude towards technical women in our industry/community. We don't need to make _any_ assumptions, and at the same time we can be confident enough in who we are and our own domain of expertise to not need to identify other women as "us" (geek girls) or "them" (non-geek women). I have plenty of friends at all levels of the geekiness scale.

Hope that helps. I went through this too, and I would hope that more women can simply be comfortable to be geeks - whatever their expertise or technical ability - without feeling frustrated or threatened by the relative geekiness or non-geekiness of others.

Who cares if it is a code geek, a sysadmin geek, a UX geek or even an arts geek. "Geek" need not be an exclusive term, and really we should be encouraging geekiness in all forms and at all levels, because after all, the geek will inherit the earth ;)

db_pub said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
db_pub said...

In general i think it is wrong to assume knowledge of stuffz. Assuming a person knows more or less about X is never a good start :)

Obviously situations also changes the nature of people's perceptions.
.....
If they have to challenge you to find out what you know, that's their problem.

Ross Hill said...

It's really interesting to see the comment discussion on this one - my view is that a very simple introduction should cover it. Surely if you mention you're the Wave developer community manager that means you're a dev?

I wasn't there, but I'm pretty sure the guy was just trolling. Mark as spam and move on :)

goodb0fh said...

hopefully you meant short green *skirt* and not shirt? If all you were wearing were a green shirt and a t-shirt, I can see why the audience may be a little challenged :)

Scott McLauchlan said...

I was at the Ignite Spacial event, and I really enjoyed your talk (it's certainly inspired me to find out more about Google Wave). However, I thought there were two problems with your talk in the Ignite context. The first was the amusing little asides "hidden" in your slides. They were very funny, but I found myself looking for them rather than listening properly to you. In a more traditional talk the six or seven seconds your audience spends doing that wouldn't be a problem (and it helps liven up the talk). However, with the Ignite format, having only fifteen seconds to talk to each slide I felt it was too much of a distraction.

I was towards the back of the crowded room and could only see you from the shoulders up, so I could see you were attractive, but when I saw you at the bar later I saw that you looked hot in the now-infamous green skirt (is it sexist to notice that - I hope not). In a more traditional talk it may not have been such a problem, but with only five minutes I can see how it would distract those of us attracted to the fair sex. I don't know that it's particularly a problem of sexism per se - you'd have the same problem if you were a good-looking guy in Warrick Capper shorts and a tight tank-top presenting to a largely female audience, or if you dressed as a clown with a spinning bowtie.

As you are no doubt painfully aware, IT geeks are overwhelmingly male and we male geeks are often self-selecting for poor social skills (it hurts a lot less to have a core dump than to really be dumped). This unfortunately is something you need to take into consideration if you want people to pay attention to what you're saying, rather than how you look.

As far as your point about people assuming you're not technical because you're female and attractive, I have to say I'm disappointed that a geek audience hasn't done a better job of growing out of this trope, even if society at large continues to cling to it (see "Beauty and the Geek" for a particularly egregious example, but "Big Bang Theory", a show I really enjoy, suffers from a notable case of this trope).

Pete F said...

Here is what I think happened.

I think the guy took one look at you, multiplied by google then divided by zero and decided google had sent a marketing person to a geekish event. He probably didn't even bother to listen to your presentation.

If he has some opinion about appropriate decorum for women, he should keep it to himself. Holding an opinion about the cause of women, is one thing but his stating that opinion to you is something else entirely (it's very side-effecty, to say the least)

Insecure,and socially inept doesn't cover it; I bet he had bad breath too. And when he was at school he probably pulled the pretty girls' hair and stole their pencils.

If he can't handle your choice of clothes, that remains HIS problem. There's no way you should have to stand up and make some declaration of credibility. (Did he?)

If he said that, he probably didn't even believe it himself -more likely he was just trying to shovel the shit back into the horse.

But, it was nice to meet you and chat.

Pete

ray said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ray said...

Hi Pamela,

I simply think that you are one of the most intelligent and capable persons I know.

And with a great sense of humor,
(well, that's part of "intelligence" too...).

So there!
RAY
San Francisco

Royce said...

"Maybe it's because girls naturally hate girls"
So true.

Great post Pamela!

lhalligan said...

"Maybe it's because girls naturally hate girls (a well documented phenomenom in women's magazines), and this is an extension of the phenomenon."

Pamela, Girls are socialized to hate girls. It's not natural at all. We live in a sexist world and are encultured to think less of women than we do of men.

"As you are no doubt painfully aware, IT geeks are overwhelmingly male and we male geeks are often self-selecting for poor social skills (it hurts a lot less to have a core dump than to really be dumped). This unfortunately is something you need to take into consideration if you want people to pay attention to what you're saying, rather than how you look."

You're right, Scott, we certainly don't see this sort of thing outside of geekdom. Nothing of the sort happened while Hillary was running for president. Or when Sarah Palin got put on the ticket with McCain. Or with Meghan McCain's recent twitter photo debacle. Oh, wait,I forgot they were all caught being female, and needed to be shamed for their choice of clothing/hair/makeup/you-name-it. Way to hold up the tradition of the patriarchy, Scott, shame on.

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