Building a community of women who work in technology – hosted by Betsy Speare, Jennifer Marsman & Helene Love Snell

Archive for September, 2011

Why are more women not speaking at technical conferences?

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NOTE: Jennifer is one of the co-founders of this blog –  and is our first “guest blogger.”  This awesome blog post was originally posted on Jennifer Marsman’s blog  on MSDN at  Feel free to check out the post there as well…the comments and responses to the post are as interesting and telling as the post itself.   To follow the Women in Technology Blog – go to 

At the CodeStock conference, Mike Neel and I ran a session entitled “Why aren’t women speaking at CodeStock? (and other WiT issues)”.  A little background on this session: Mike Neel is the organizer of CodeStock and a longtime champion for Women in Technology.  He reached out to me some time ago and told me that after the call for speakers had closed, I was the *only* female who had submitted sessions to present at CodeStock.  He had wanted to hold a WiT panel or something at the conference as well, but it looked like there weren’t enough women for a panel discussion.  Therefore, he proposed this session as a community discussion and asked if I would co-lead it with him.  As the conference approached, Britt King reached out to me on Twitter and asked if I could publish any insights from the session.  I’m glad he did, as I captured better notes from what turned out to be an amazing conversation.  With the participants’ permission, here are some of the items of discussion and tangible solutions to this issue.  (NOTE: I lay out a variety of different thoughts and opinions from the conversation below, and not all of them are my own.)

microphone-audience1Why are more women not speaking at technical conferences?

  • Small number of women in computing.  Obviously, there aren’t a large number of women in technology to begin with.  Only a subset of these women will be comfortable with speaking, so that may end up being a fairly small number.  The point was also brought up that there are differing numbers of women in different communities; for example, there seem to be more women in the SQL community.
  • Difference in confidence levels.  Multiple people brought up a difference in confidence levels between men and women, and how in general(so as not to be completely sexist) women feel the need to understand things at a deeper level before they’re comfortable enough to speak on it.
    • I can share a personal example here: several years ago, a male colleague and I were scheduled to present a day-long event with many technical sessions at a large corporation, and we were dividing the session topics between us.  One of the topics was Silverlight, which had just been released at the time.  I didn’t really feel like I knew Silverlight that well at that time…I had read some blog posts, seen a video or two, and downloaded some demos, but I hadn’t written any of my own code with it yet.  My male colleague said that he knew Silverlight pretty well, so we agreed that he would present it.  Fast-forward to his talk: he presented a marketing slide deck to developers (which is never a good idea), didn’t show any demos (since Silverlight is a presentation-layer technology, you can’t fully appreciate it without seeing it in action), and didn’t do so well answering questions.  It turns out that he had just seen the Silverlight announcements, and yet he felt confident enough that he “knew” Silverlight from that, whereas I (with more actual knowledge, in this particular instance) did not.
    • There’s also a phenomenon known as “Impostor Syndrome”, which is discussed at many Women in Tech conferences.  Many very successful women in the industry suffer from this feeling that their success is because of luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise “fooling” others into thinking you are smarter and more capable than you “know” you are, and someday you will be exposed.
  • Carrying the weight of an entire gender on their shoulders.  Since women are such a minority in the computing field, a female presenter does stand out.  If she does a poor job, it might reflect poorly on all women, which is a lot of pressure.  The man who made this insight specifically referenced this xkcd cartoon entitled “How It Works”:


Solutions to get more women speakers

Here are some potential solutions.  Note that most of this is not really female-specific; these are great ways to attract more speakers or ease people into speaking in general.

  • Grok talks/lightning talks.  These are short 5-10 minute talks.  Some user groups have lightning talks in addition to the main 1- or 1.5-hour session, so presenting a lightning talk can be a lower-stress way to get people speaking in front of a group on a technical topic without having to come up with content and present a full hour+ session.
  • Start with co-presenters.  There is less pressure if there are two speakers giving the talk and fielding questions than if you are up there alone.
  • Consider a panel format.  Same logic as co-presenters…you can ease into speaking by being one of many on a panel and there is less individual pressure on you.
  • Ask them.  Some of the most phenomenal women in the .NET community that I know (now established speakers, bloggers, user group leaders, MVPs, etc.) started as quiet women in the back of the room at monthly .NET user group meetings.  Then someone took an interest in them, drawing them out and asking for their opinions or help with the user group, and eventually asking them to speak.  Being personally asked to speak is more compelling than a general call for speakers.
  • Suggest topics.  Instead of the generic “Do you want to speak at a user group meeting?” which is a vague, scary proposition, ask potential speakers if they would be interested in speaking about the MVC work that they have been doing at their company, or their experiences with cloud computing.  The more concrete ask with a topic is less nebulous and may seem like an attainable goal.
  • Provide starting material.  It was also suggested to provide starter material to potential speakers, so that rather than worry about having to create content and present it, they only have to worry about presenting.  (SIDE NOTE: There are a number of really great “training kits” from various Microsoft product teams that include PowerPoint presentations on the technology, such as Azure, Windows 7, Visual Studio and .NET 4.0, Windows Phone, etc.)
  • Toastmasters.  Toastmastersis an organization to help grow its members’ public speaking skills.  During meetings, members give presentations and evaluate each other in a friendly environment.
  • User group with labs and mentoring.  Someone brought this up as a confidence builder.  This is a user group that meets to work on coding projects together (rather than listening to presentations).  They work on open source projects or bring ideas of their own.  There is a lot of mentoring, pair programming, and people helping each other out when someone gets stuck.  There is a projector available, and occasionally someone will connect their machine and let everyone watch them coding for awhile, but this isn’t mandatory.  I found this idea really interesting as a confidence builder, because to many people, live coding in front of others is a level scarier than even public speaking, but the person who proposed this idea said that one of their best attendees was a 16-year-old girl.  Awesome!
  • Start at the local level.  Speaking is a journey.  Most folks start at the local level by speaking at an internal company Lunch & Learn or a nearby evening user group.  As they grow more comfortable there, they submit talks to conferences and bigger events, and work their way up.
  • Blogging and other avenues.  At the end of the day, some women are introverts and not comfortable with public speaking.  However, these women can still be role models and established experts in a topic using other means, like blogging.

Why is diversity even important?  Is it really an issue if there are few women speakers?  Are we asking too much of women?

There was a lot of thought-provoking conversation around these questions and similar ones.

Why is diversity important?

Here is why I personally believe that diversity on software teams is important.  I’ll admit…as a girl, I was fortunate to attend “girls in math and science” events and such, so I grew up benefitting from diversity initiatives, but never truly “got it” until my first real job out of college.  I worked on a team with a variety of different people, and among them were 3 people:

  1. A man with a hardcore Unix background (who, speaking of stereotypes, did have a long beard and wear shorts and Birkenstocks even in the middle of winter)
  2. A guy with less formal education but a ton of real-world experience, who had been playing with computers from a young age
  3. A guy near my age (so just out of college) with a strong formal education from a top-tier university, but little real-world experience (he understood the theory but usually hadn’t done it himself)

When I had a problem I was stuck on, I would go talk to each of these three people individually.  Every time, they gave me at least somewhat different answers.  Then, I could take the shortcomings of one solution and use information from someone else’s solution to solve it.  With all of their advice put together, I was able to build the best possible software.  That is why diversity is truly important…at the end of the day, you can use it to drive better business results.

Now, I realize that these three people were all men, but I would argue that we did have diversity on our team.  In general, having the widest range of types of people on your team will promote more diversity.  I don’t just mean gender, race, and age, but the things that are harder to see as well: introverts and extroverts, young people just out of college and single parents (who have to manage their time super-efficiently), people with different thinking styles, working styles, education levels, work experience, etc.

Finally, don’t forget that many of us develop software that is used globally or released publically on the internet for everyone.  In that case, having developers that reflect your broad user base is a very good thing.  Everyone brings their own perspectives to the table, and (for example) a single mom will understand best what a single mom needs from a dating website or a website that sells diapers online, etc.  A diverse workforce creates better software and happier users.

Is it really an issue if there are few women speakers?

Data from one of our Microsoft “Women in Technology” slide decks gives the top three reasons that women leave the computing industry.  (My apologies…the source of this data wasn’t included in the slide deck; I’m trying to track it down.)

  1. Lack of role models
  2. Lack of mentorship/career coaching
  3. Sexual harassment

With the lack of role models being one of the top reasons, this suggests that having female speakers is very important.  One participant made the point that the people who we hear speak at events and conferences often become our role models.  Someone else suggested that it’s important for women to see other women speaking, to know that it’s something attainable for them.

Finally, Mike also brought up some data from the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (around page 84 if you’re interested).  Here are his thoughts, in his own words:

“In short, Gladwell is discussing the threshold effect – an observed effect where over a certain threshold, improvements have no effect.  The example he mentioned was Michigan Law school looking at students brought in under affirmative action.  These students did not place as well as other students on LSAT and other academic measures.  When the school came under political fire for the program, they took a look at how students fared in life after college.  It was expected to find the affirmative action students doing worse than the regular students, and the question was by how much.  In looking at salary, awards, job position held, community contributions, and personal satisfaction levels, they found there was no difference between the groups.  The students were all over the threshold, so the only thing that mattered was the experience and education of going to Michigan Law.

I brought this up as a counter question to “does it matter women aren’t in technology?”.  My view is that our methods of measuring qualification are being used far after the threshold is passed.  It’s often asked if a women should be in a technology role, speaking or otherwise, if she isn’t the “most qualified” or “best” person available.  This highly competitive nature is seen all over the industry, not just with women.  We in technology are obsessed with perfection.  The story above however says after a person passes the threshold, they are all equal.”

Other Insights

We talked briefly about some other WiT issues as well, such as the importance of mentoring (remember, men can mentor women too) and how to get more women at user groups.  Adria Lomangino discussed some really cool work that she’s been doing, teaching Alice at schools.

I’m sure that I missed some thoughts, so please add your feedback in the comments below!  Thanks again to everyone who attended; it was a great conversation.

Do you need permission to improve a crappy team? Ask your Board of Directors!

Betsy Speare, Principal Program Manager Lead, Windows Server Microsoft, Happy family member, new Green Lake, Seattle Resident, 15 years at Microsoft, EWU CIS grad and chicken farmer!


Before we even dive into the topic du jour, I want to say that this blogging business is a learning experience – i.e. test link, get an editorial pass, and get this all done 24 hours before posting.  Maybe we’ll start a new blog called “how to write a WIT blog.” Finally – THANK YOU!  – just a little over 500 hits last week on our first post and some very motivational notes from women who are happy to see other technical women. It’s such a bummer to feel isolated – hopefully we can curb some of that here.  Next week we start our guest-blog-a-thon…

I have a “board” that I discuss all my work problems with. It’s a bunch of rad women that I just really trust to tell me the truth, give good feedback and wonderful ideas – but mostly just courage to be honest – self asses and then move on.    A little while ago, in a technical women’s lunch (read:  big “board”) we had such a great discussion that it made me want to just write it down.   In my experience, women can  stretch professionally by having open conversations. I don’t think the value of  peer feedback and mentoring are unique to women. Technical men  have these conversations with each other as well – but not often with women (statistically fewer technical women…). I wonder if the guys talk about their failures and successes more, but I bet the successful men have figured out how to get feedback.  A big part of “success” is mentoring – basically learning from the experiences of others and soliciting feedback on thought structure and ideas. I think the guys just have more opportunities to have conversations w/ other men because there are more of them around. It’s just harder to findother women to trust and talk to – we might not see each other that often!

So the big “board” that I referred to is the  MS Windows Server and Cloud Women’s Leadership Council(a grass roots community of technical women at Microsoft – short name “WLC” ) meeting with a topic brought up by a program manager we’ll call “Jane.” She had recently changed managers within her group. The new lead just wasn’t as inspirational as her last manager and she didn’t feel connected with her peers. She had delivered a “stack” of feedback and changes she was asking her new manager to address including asking for more inspiration and connection with the rest of the team. She came to our lunch frustrated with the lack of response and to discuss her options and get feedback (THAT takes courage!). BTW, Jane’s clearly an articulate, intelligent woman with a lot to offer and will go a long way. I asked her level (“Senior PM” in Microsoft terms, mid-level/non-manager PM), what the “stack” of feedback was and then considered how to respond.

First, to clarify – all of the  feedback to her manager was reasonable and none of it reflected bad behavior on the part of her manager – nice guy and friendly – not mean, condescending, flirting, out to get her, competitive or any of a myriad of potential crappy manager traits that we have all experienced or heard about a thousand times. Also – I’ve known Jane for a while and while she has a lot of gusto and energy, she doesn’t have deeply engrained “issues” that would make me steer her toward some kind of performance improvement plan. Last, while I’m not familiar with her new manager I’m familiar with her team which has a great reputation and solid leadership.

So the new team did not have the connection and sense of community she desired.  Wait a second, I thought – is she was waiting for someone else to create something she needed?   When had I encountered this? Had I? Honestly, no, I’ve never been a “wait for permission” person – in fact  waiting for permission makes me think I’m going by the rules for the sake of the rule and then I REALLY stop waiting! I remember one of my first test managers, Greg Chapman, telling me this was a great trait – I remember my Mom telling me otherwise. Poor Mom.

So, what was the feedback? I said it much more tactfully, but if you are looking to grow – quit looking for inspiration, direction and problem solving to come from a manager. In my case, eventually my job goals, vision and commitments came from my own assessment of the work to be done. As I became more senior, it was expected that I would find my own way, define my own priorities and make sure they lined up with the objectives of the team. Ideally, they would even improve the path to the team vision. Eventually, it has become sort of backwards to complain about a problem without a solution in mind unless you’ve really racked your brain on how to fix it – but that’s later in career. So in listening to our Senior PM (with the fabulous courage to ask the question), I wondered how to convey that – and I gave it a shot and suggested she make some suggestions on how to improve the situation.   I suggested that in addition sometimes the feedback you are giving says more about you than the receiver (not always, but in this case, yes). Maybe it was time to figure out how to address the broken issues on your own?

Mai-lan Tomsen Bukovec (a valued member of my personal board and recent Geek of the Week honoree) jumped in. She explained that at some point it was up to you to create the team you wanted. Someone else pointed out that you could quit waiting for permission to make it better. You could do brownbags and ask your manager to present, pay for pizza. How to build that sense of team camaraderie that was missing was up to her – build what she needs. Our lunch group came up with some really good suggestions.

(Mai-lan, Geek of the Week)

Jane  asked what we did to make sure we had a great team that we could lean on. I pointed to the room. This group what we had created to make sure we had the support we needed.

When I see successful women in technology there is a common attribute. They don’t wait to find out if it’s “OK.” They aren’t so concerned about “stepping on toes” and they don’t wait for someone else to fix it. Something isn’t working for her or her team or her customer and she just figures out something to make it better and does it. I guess the really successful ones probably figure out how to get it in their review and receive some recognition for it… but we’ll leave that for another blog topic called “VISIBILITY and SPONSORSHIP (check out this great article on Sponsorship that Deb McFadden forwarded me from Catalyst.”

So there are multiple pivots to this discussion. I do wonder how well this “go for it” mentality facilitates collaboration and other cross team skills. I mean it’s sort of hard to listen when you are busy just solving all the problems yourself. Yes, I know that’s an extreme, but I’d like to hear from you on that too.

So after the discussion my new friend send me mail asking for some 1:1 time – I told her I would be happy to discuss. Then I saw the title of the meeting request from her “HOW TO TURN ANY JOB INTO A PERFECT ONE.” Oops. That wasn’t what I meant… I haven’t met with her yet but I felt sort of guilty just accepting the meeting invite.

Women in Technology blog– Our first blog!

Betsy Speare, Principal Program Manager Lead, Windows Server Microsoft

Happy Family member,  new Green Lake, Seattle Resident, 15 years at Microsoft, EWU CIS grad and chicken farmer!


Betsy Speare


In 2003 I became part of a group of 10 women asked by Bill Veghte, then VP of Windows Server to help him understand the experience of Women in his group. While we had little insight into the reasons why at the time, we know now that there were three issues that were likely concerning him. First, the numbers for women in technology in our group were abysmal – I’d estimate less than 10% of technical heads belonged to women. Second, the retention rate beginning with mid-level women began plummeting dramatically faster than men at the same level. And last, those women that were staying were getting promoted at a significantly slower rate. Even at that time, our executive leadership understood that you aren’t likely to deliver world class products for a diverse set of customers with a non-diverse workforce and further, the less diverse you are, the less diverse you get.

Anyhow, that initial set of conversations with Bill and then his replacement Bob Muglia were encouraging. We found out we had a common set of experiences as women in Windows Server. We were motivated and excited to spread the word. We met a few times a month and brought our lunch while we discussed what we knew, what we didn’t know, how we could help Bob educate his staff. We had some great ideas and spent about a year pursuing them with Bob’s unwavering support. We brought in Abbey Stewart – a woman at the U of Michigan who had done extensive & impressive research and recommendations to positively impact the experience of women in the engineering and sciences department and throughout U of M. She had successfully transformed the tenure evaluation process to be a “blind” selection based on the candidates qualifications and had some amazing results (check out her reseach!).  We showed Bob’s staff videos and powerpoints and even Abbey! How could they not see the benefit of shifting our processes and policy? They didn’t bite. We changed tactics and came in with lists of recommendations and ideas on how we could improve the experience for women in Windows Server. The response was not what we had hoped. The GMs were interested in stats almost exclusively.

“Was this really a problem?” “What are the stats in my team?”  “How many women were available to hire?” “What percentage did Microsoft hire?” “ How many stayed?” “For how long?” “Why did they leave?” “Why aren’t there very many to hire?”

All reasonable questions – none of which we could answer. HR wouldn’t give us the numbers, exit interviews were unlikely to be very revealing and without the stats we couldn’t get through. Fundamentally I think the staff wasn’t trying to blow us off, they were trying to understand what “success looks like.” How would they know if they were doing things better? What numbers would change? We couldn’t answer.

We were dismayed and deflated. I remember sitting together at one of our lunches – all of us disappointed with the lack of progress we had made – even with all our effort and enthusiasm we hadn’t made a dent. I remember declaring that I didn’t want to waste my time on this anymore and that it’s not likely that the minority can change the mind of the majority. It was so frustrating!!

In the same moment we looked at each other and recognized that at least we had gotten to know each other. We never missed those lunches because it was such a relief to sit in a room full of women (ok, 10 women seemed like a LOT) and just talk about whatever we wanted. We had no taboo topics. We discussed our promotions, our bosses, our reviews. We discussed where the women were and where they weren’t. We recognized the propensity toward technical women being in lighter weight roles more focused on project management and UI and not many (we had 1!) in core systems, networking or kernel. We investigated different ways of supporting women (read She Wins, You Win – it sets you in the right direction).  It was relaxing and refreshing to connect with other women. So, we decided to abandon Bob’s staff and just take care of ourselves. We kept having lunch every few weeks. Then we began thinking about what we could do for ourselves and the other women we worked with.

The results 8 years later are amazing and the impact is probably beyond what we actually know. What we know for ourselves is that out of those 10 original women, only 1 has (tearfully) left the company due to a job transfer her husband accepted, 2 has left Windows Server (but we still see her!) and the other 7 are still in the (re-orged many times) Server and Tools Business and have all been promoted to senior ranks. We are officially called the Windows Server Women’s Leadership Council (you can join us on our new Linked In page) and our membership is past 300 women AND even some men. The initiatives we drive reach well beyond 1500 women at Microsoft and span multiple divisions (I’m counting the 1degree program and Senior Women’s Efforts for those who are counting – more on those in another post). We have an executive sponsor (Windows Server VP Bill Laing – there’s a good story here) and a budget! Gasp! We have a well published charter (coming soon with perms from the WLC Board!), a web page with events and contacts (internal only for now) and more events that we can keep track of. Our basic premise for any initiative is that if you are interested in making it happen, then we’ll find the budget. You can imagine the variety – everything from book clubs to mentoring rings to yoga classes.

I’ve had this conversation 100s of times with these women over the last 8 years. I’m still surprised when a woman or group of women comes to me for input on creating community or personal mentoring, have this conversation, and the veil of mystery is lifted – we aren’t alone here! Then the stages of grief overwhelms her, she spends some time (1 day to 6 months) venting and then, she begins to take some action. Just like we did.

So this blog is an extension of that conversation and community.  There will be discussion, technical explanation, venting, leadership and mentoring…  a spot where we can have regular, open discussion about how to improve our experiences and see the results of women in technology.   Here, we can educate ourselves and while giving interested male counterparts, managers and executives some insight into our experience and the opportunity to share their perspective as well. So that’s it. This is it.

At this years Tech Ed Women in Technology Forum, I partnered up with Microsoft Principal Developer Evangelist Jennifer Marsman and Microsoft Director of Communications for Windows Server & Cloud Division, Helene Love Snell.  Together, we’ve come up with an impressive list of guest bloggers!   If you are interested in blogging, let me know – I hope we have a variety of contributors (men too!) that can share their perspective on building great experiences for women in technology.  Also – while Jennifer is out on leave (congrats!!), I’ll be learning as I go on this blog – suggestions welcome.


Ultimately, we must own our own happiness (quote from my Mom) and we can really impact the experience of those who might be feeling a bit isolated – join in and welcome!

Betsy Speare

Follow me on Twitter @BetsySpeare

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