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. :)