Tag Archives: women in tech

Twenty Years of Being a Woman at Tech Events

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were Read More…

Since the early 1990s, I have attended tech events large and small in the US, Italy, Germany, and India. I was usually one of a small number of women attending or staffing in some technical capacity, i.e. able to speak knowledgeably about technologies and products. There were always other women around, but most of those were contracted for the duration of the event to work in a booth, taking business cards and giving out schwag. That work is useful and needed, but was not what I was there for.

I understood early on that I was an anomaly. A few times I even played on it: wearing a miniskirt while on booth duty, then waiting in glee to see how long it would take people to realize that I actually knew what I was talking about. (In Italy, it is not unusual for women to wear miniskirts to professional events.) But, even when I played with it, I wanted to be recognized for my brains and technical knowledge, not for my body.

No matter how I dressed, it was always an uphill battle.

I myself have not experienced overt harassment at a tech event, though I know very well that it happens. I experienced a more subtle (and probably unconscious) form of harassment in having to prove my technical knowledge, over and over. In most people’s minds, a woman in a booth by default is fit only to swipe badges and serve coffee. Then: “Oh, you actually know something! How unusual!” It gets… tiring.

There were more blatantly sexist things going on around me, constantly. Some memorable incidents include:

CeBit, Europe’s equivalent to Comdex/CES: In 1994, three female Italian colleagues staffed a booth for our small company there, and were very popular with (male) partners and customers. The following year, the company sent three men. The same partners and customers would walk up to the booth and ask: “Where are the girls?” – then walk away in disappointment, without leaving so much as a business card. (Of the two groups of three, each time, one person was technical and the other two were sales/marketing.)

But the real attention-getters at CeBit were the svelte women walking around in skin-tight ski suits printed with a Swiss cheese design – a marketing campaign by the government of Switzerland. Men chased them around the pavilions to take photos.

CeBit also featured beer tents which, in the evenings, quickly became rowdy with businessmen drinking and singing. I didn’t go in. Being among few women in such a situation, my best hope would have been to be mistaken for a waitress. No doubt I missed some industry networking opportunities.

The Adult Entertainment Expo used to be co-located with CES in Las Vegas, to “help exhibitors minimize travel expenses and maximize networking opportunities.” One of the years I staffed a booth at CES, we were in the same building as the Expo, leading to scenes in the common hallways of male tech staff chasing after women porn stars for autographs and photos. I was amused, but there was a blur to this situation that I didn’t like: was I there as a subject or an object? Given that most of the women present were there to be looked at, one way or another, people might understandably be confused. At least there was no doubt about the women porn performers’ starring roles in their products, while I, as a woman, was not assumed to be a co-creator in the technology I was selling.

CES hasn’t changed: it continues to feature “booth babes” in scanty clothing (or practically none). This is now sanctified as “tradition” and because “sex sells.”

The idea that women exist primarily for men to look at so permeates tech events that there have been multiple incidents of men posting photos of “the babes of [event]” – including women who were there as attendees and speakers – and claiming that those women should feel flattered!

Then there was the tech scene in Italy, which I’ve written about before.

And I almost forgot to mention, because it’s been so immutable a part of the tech conference experience forever, the very small numbers of women speakers.

In sum: The full impact of how women are presented, perceived, and treated at tech events cannot be fully felt or understood via any single incident, no matter how egregious. What weighs on women in tech is year after year after year of these incidents and attitudes.

So, when we react with rage to the latest example of sexism in tech manifesting at a conference, we’re not being “overly sensitive”. This is a severe allergic reaction, built up over multiple exposures. It’s all the more discouraging to see how little has changed in twenty years – little improvement, and no end in sight.

Read next: Sex and Tech Events

The Boys of barCamp

For me, it started with a comment on Pandemia. Luca Conti (one of Italy’s most influential bloggers) reported the quizzical complaint of Marina Bellini: why were there practically no females signed up for barCamp Rome?   Luca Mascaro, Federico, Diego Bianchi, Luca Conti I’d been reading more and more Italian blogs lately, especially since I Read More…

For me, it started with a comment on Pandemia. Luca Conti (one of Italy’s most influential bloggers) reported the quizzical complaint of Marina Bellini: why were there practically no females signed up for barCamp Rome?

whodiegoluca

 

Luca Mascaro, Federico, Diego Bianchi, Luca Conti

I’d been reading more and more Italian blogs lately, especially since I met some Italian bloggers at a conference in Torino back in December. Luca had endeared himself to me by telling me, as soon as we met, that he had liked my piece on Bormio. And I’d gotten to know Lele Dainesi since he began doing PR consulting for TVBLOB (although, dazzled by the charms of my boss Lisa, he rather ignored me until I established my geek street cred by showing him my own site/blog).

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The week after we hung out together in Torino, Lele, Luca, and many other Italian bloggers were at LeWeb3 in Paris (to my intense jealousy – I wanted to meet social networking researcher/goddess danah boyd – but my big boss wouldn’t pay for me to go). Amidst the controversy over how that conference was run, Lele amused himself by posting a Flickr photostream of “the women of LeWeb3.”

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^ Lele

So, in answer to the question “Why are women so under-represented at tech conferences?”, I commented that it might be because we hadn’t been invited, and that, fond as I am of Lele, initiatives like his LeWeb photos make us uncomfortable: “We like to feel appreciated for our brains before our tette.”

Lele jokingly replied that he simply loves beautiful women and, if they have brains as well as breasts, so much the better.

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^ Tony Siino, Vittorio Pasteris

(I was irritated by a similar posting of photos of The Babes of CES – really, guys, you can stop asking yourselves why women don’t come to tech conferences. As I commented on Thomas Hawk’s blog, it’s probably because we’re tired of trying to have conversations with your bald spots.)

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^ Diego Bianchi aka Zoro

Another commenter pointed out that I didn’t need an invitation to come to a barCamp: anyone is welcome to attend and to speak. Then I received email from Amanda, a British woman (married to an Italian) living in Rome and working in tech (Excite), wanting to know if I was coming to barCamp, as she would like to meet me. Turns out she works with Diego, whom I knew from vlogEurope, who would also be at barCamp, along with others I knew, or wanted to meet.

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^ Mystery Man C, Luca Lorenzetti, Andrea Martines, Mystery Woman 0, Mystery Man F

So I bought a train ticket on Thursday (100 euros – ouch!) and arrived Friday evening at Rome’s Stazione Termini. From there I would take the metro to the end of the line, near the home of our friends Serena and Sandro. As I looked around me in the metro station, I reflected that, the further south you go in Italy, the more good-looking the men. Not that they’re ugly up where we live, but I’m often astonished at the sheer beauty of Roman men (I admit to prejudice: my husband was born in Rome, though that doesn’t make him a Roman). But no one’s allowed to take photos in the metro, so I couldn’t document the ones who particularly caught my attention that evening. (What you see on this page are men who attended barCamp.)

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Simone Onofri

Serena picked me up at the metro station and brought me home to have dinner (and lots of wine) with the family. Sandro went over my Italian slang pages, making additions and corrections; eventually I want to get him on video demonstrating and explaining Roman slang. (I do have some video from that evening, finally edited and posted.)

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Tommaso Sorchiotti

Saturday morning Serena dropped me at the bus stop to begin an hour-long odyssey across Rome. The day was beautiful and the ride fun; I had to change bus lines once and ask directions several times (I was delighted at the friendliness and helpfulness of the Romans). I found my way to the Linux Club in via Libetta by around 9:45, for an event that was scheduled to start at 10.

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This being Rome, we actually got started around 11:30, with the first speakers starting to talk while some of us were still registering for our badges and t-shirts. I stood in line with Amanda and Antonio (above), a winsome Sicilian philosopher who works for a company that makes adver-games (cool!).

barCamps are informal, and this one utterly chaotic: I had a hard time figuring out what was going on where and when, so I didn’t make it to any of the talks I thought I’d like to hear. But the ones I did end up listening to were interesting, and designed to provoke conversation rather than dispense wisdom in only one direction. Me being me, I got more than a few words in edgewise.

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^ behind: Davide Salerno, in front: Cristian Conti

blondedoor^ Federica Fabbiani, Andrea Cuius, Mystery Woman 2, Mystery Man J

During one such intervento, I pointed out that the Italian blogging community ignores the many foreigners blogging in and about Italy, whose perspective is different and potentially useful. Some people pitched in enthusiastically that they had recently discovered some of these blogs, and in the hallway afterwards several told me that they’d specifically discovered mine (thanks to a recent link from Lele), and enjoyed it – always good to hear!

dooragain^ Mystery Man K, Marco Rosella, Luca Alagna, Mystery Men N (background), O

When I wasn’t listening to “formal” presentations, there were plenty of other interesting conversations going on. Elisabetta, whom I met at vlogEurope, had come down from Milan to conduct live online interviews during dolMedia‘s coverage of the barCamp. She interviewed me about my 25 years online (a topic I had considered speaking on, but there were too many speakers already) and about TVBLOB.

A haphazard lunch was served, of Rome’s excellent casereccio bread with slices of roast pork, mortadella (aka bologna), olive paté, and various other goodies provided by San-Lorenzo.com. It was a scramble to get everybody fed, but, after years of boarding school, I am a champion at scrounging food – I didn’t go hungry (though I remained desperate for coffee for a long time).

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^ Mystery Men K, O, Luca L. (again), Diego Magnani

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^ Mystery Woman 3, Leo Sorge,and Palmasco (foreground)

I realized that Robin Good, whose blog I’ve been reading for years, was present – and the photo on his site does not nearly do him justice robingood(nor does mine, unfortunately). I had not been able to locate his talk on Come pagare l’affitto con il sito (“how to pay the rent with your site”), but he was happy to give me individual advice. He, too, had followed Lele’s link to my site recently, so had some truly useful things to say. (I’m now mulling over what I’ll actually carry out.)

Robin is Italian, but writes his site in at least three languages (English, Italian, and Spanish, that I know of – and he may be adding more), and does a nice job of explaining all sorts of high tech stuff even to non-techies – I recommend it if you’re interested in understanding what we nerds are up to.

I spent a lot of the day talking with Amanda, who’s trying to set up a Girl Geeks Dinner in Italy – we need to find a woman who works at a high level in IT in Italy to be our inspirational speaker. I also talked a lot with Diego, about everything possible, and lots of other people. By the end of the day I was exhausted from talking.

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Mystery Man T, Stefigno, Mystery Man V, Gaspar and Fabrizio

Around 8:30 pm, 40 of us moved a few blocks down to a restaurant for a group dinner. Pastarito is part of a chain in Italy, almost American in its approach and menu styling. It wouldn’t have been my first choice for a meal, but it was nearby and could seat 40 people, so probably the best we could do in the circumstances. The food was okay, though nowhere near the level of the dinner I organized for vlogEurope (said she modestly).

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^ Matteo Marchelli (red sleeves)

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^ waiter who looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, Fabrizio Ulisse

The dinner in any case was mostly about (more) conversation, though we were all running out of steam by the time we broke up at 11 pm. Diego dropped me and Luca at a metro stop, but the Roman metro closes for (ongoing) repairs every night at 9, and we couldn’t figure out where to catch the substitute bus. So we walked to a taxi stand, and finally found a taxi. Which cost a LOT less, for the distance, than it would have in Milan. I collapsed at Serena and Sandro’s around midnight.

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^ Andrea Beggi, Mystery Man X, Pino (who shared an excellent dish of mussels at dinner)

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Many thanks to Fabio Masetti (above) who organized it all, very well.

As for Les Boys: if all tech conferences were stocked with this many good-looking men, more women would probably go to them! (Sorry my photos aren’t so great – I really must get a better camera.)

I’ll leave it to the public to decide who is il piu’ figo (the hottest). If you’ve got better photos you’d like me to post or can provide links to (and names for – thanks to Luca for those already fixed), please do! Some photos I’ve already found are Luca’s.
emanuelestef

Emanuele Quintarelli and Stefano (Aghenor) Vitta