Originally written for AWSN Blog. Post discussing what drives women to speak (or not) at tech conferences.
Right now it seems every LinkedIn post I read, or tweet I see, is questioning reasons why women are not presenting (or even submitting) to tech conferences. So, I wanted to take the time to do a deep dive into this and share some insight on why I feel this occurs. Of course, opinions are my own and I can only draw on my own personal experience.
How do I know what I am talking about? Previously I was a technical trainer for Sun Microsystems teaching Solaris Unix, I have put together countless presentations and courses in the workplace and for the InfoSec community for educational purposes and I am also a member of the Black Hat Asia Regional Review Board. Over the past 24 months I have had the privilege to present at some great conferences, such as Black Hat USA, SecTor Canada, and the Diana Initiative, LV. This year I will be keynoting at DevSecCon in Tel Aviv and hopefully a few others which I believe in.
My Own Reasons
Let’s take a look at some of the questions I ask myself and the reasons I submit or do not submit to a tech conference.
Before I decide whether I will submit, I ask the following:
- What does the conference stand for?
- Are they in the business just to make money?
- What are they doing for the InfoSec community?
- What do they offer students or recent grads?
- Do they offer any education or panels to help n00bs in the industry?
- If the conference is expensive, do they offer to fly their speakers in and/or pay for their accommodation? This is an important prerequisite because I feel that if a conference can afford to charge $1000+ per ticket and they want to attract quality speakers, then speakers should be compensated. Research takes time and is done in our free time, rarely is it done during company hours. Many of us typically don’t care about getting paid if the conference is right, but the expense to get the speaker there and back is important. Otherwise it’s logical you raise the question, “Is this conference in it for the money”? No thanks!
What drives me to submit?
- I am picky about which cons I submit to. It’s important I see the company or the association is giving back. Many of us have been in the industry for a long time now, so ask yourself, how is conference helping the community?
- I ask myself how my talk will influence or benefit the attendees/participants. Will they learn something? Don’t do it for your own self-gratification! Your audience can see you are fake.
- Have I passionately worked on something for the past 12+ months or have some knowledge that I would like to share with the InfoSec community?
- Do I have a passionate belief and/or idea which could enrich others?
- Would I want to watch my presentation if I attended?
- What are the takeaways I want my audience to walk away with?
- The most important thing: will they walk away with something new they can use and benefit from straight away?
What drives me NOT to submit?
- Make sure the conference is in line with your values!! Priority 1.
- I will never accept a conference which is vendor-driven or has product pushing
- I will never present at a conference where they want me to pay to present. Shocking, yes, but this has happened before. These conferences are sadly missing the boat about the true value of their speakers.
- If I am invited to talk, I won’t accept if I know the conference is seeking women as gap-fillers. Women want to present as it’s deserved.
- Again, if it’s a high entry conference, I want to see that the organisers are supporting their speakers. In my past speaking events, I have always had to take annual leave. Its not very encouraging to submit if you have to pay for your own airfare, accommodation, present your research which you did in your own hours and lose a day’s pay!
The above outlines some of the criteria is specific to me, but it will be different for everyone. It’s important it aligns with your own values.
Challenges We All Face
Looking at the InfoSec community as a whole, I wanted to outline some of the challenges I feel we call face regardless of gender. Presenting can be intimidating for everyone not just women.
What are some of the challenges and fears we all face?
- Lack of confidence and questioning “Are we good enough?” Gotta love Imposter Syndome!
- OMG what if the audience hates my work!!
- What if there’s someone smarter in the audience who will call me out?
- Is my work really that significant? I mean if I can do it, surely someone will, right?!?!
- I don’t think I could handle any bad feedback!
- I don’t have anything significant to submit!
- What will my peers say about me?
We often tell ourselves we are not making a difference or our contributions are “no big deal”, so what can I present and talk about? I feel everybody has something valuable to add. You don’t need to be a pen tester, break stuff or understand network defence. InfoSec has so many faces and together we all make it work, so that simply needs to be tapped into and understood.
Specific Challenges Women Face
Women and minority groups have other specific challenges which need to be called out in addition to our male colleagues. Many of these I have experienced first hand, and others I have shared their stories. These range from professional challenges we have experienced in the workplace, or just in the home.
What are some of the professional challenges that women face:
- A number of women personally feel their companies and peers don’t support them.
- Many women won’t speak for fear of backlash as there must be some type of motivation behind our wanting to speak. We are criticised for doing so which crushes our self-esteem.
- Being told you are attending a conference due to your gender only
- Many women have sadly experienced a situation in which they travel with male colleagues, who have their travel and accommodation paid for, while they need to personally pay for their travel and entry for the same exact event. There is certainly no equality in this!
- Just like with training, there should be annual days set aside for conferences so personal leave remains untouched
Support from our companies can be just as important as support from our families. I personally have spoken at conferences as an “Independent Researcher” for many of the reasons above. For women it’s a different outlook, its personal time off, away from my family, rescheduling the household and spending money to attend. We spend many hours at work and are proud of what we do. We are presenting our own research so there is no risk of legal implication. Conferences can be just as important as training; the networking alone can open new doors and business opportunities. Company support and recognition of women’s success is critical.
What are some of the personal challenges that women face balancing work and family:
- Will my partner support me?
- Will my partner be jealous if I travel to a conference by myself?
- If I go, will I have an argument when I get home?
- Who will look after the kids? I need a baby sitter, I need to reschedule a bunch of things so the kids are taken care of.
- Will my partner get jealous if my career takes off and theirs does not?
- I am already the primary wage earner, more attention to my work will cause friction in my relationship!
- I should put my family first above my career.
- My husband’s friends could give him a hard time if they know he is supporting my career.
Some of the above points may sound old-school, but the home duties mindset still exists today in many households. Many husbands and partners (not all) still find it hard to see their wife’s role outside of being a mother. Yes, women work full-time, but then it’s home duties and kids. The end!
Some partners have control issues if their wives need to travel. Putting it bluntly, if you are out of sight, “what are you really doing”? For many men, and they may not acknowledge this, control is hard to give up. I find it hard too but don’t let fear drive your life. Some partners are very protective and jealous of a successful wife, but if they drop the control and celebrate everyone’s success the relationship grows and stays strong.
A lot is changing. We are being more vocal about equality in the workplace, but is it really that way at home? Raising families is not like what it used to be 30-40 years ago. Both partners now need to work to pay a standard mortgage, and both partners will take it in turns taking care of kids. Why should a successful career be any different?
Presenting at a conference is not for everyone. However, if it’s something you would like to do, consider these closing thoughts:
- Don’t talk yourself down, it is useless emotion and I promise it won’t help you succeed.
- You may get rejected a few times before you get accepted, don’t give up.
- Partner up with someone who has experience in presentations who will help you prepare.
- Trust in yourself, your work and your research and don’t allow others to judge you. They haven’t earnt the right.
- Try and meet your audience beforehand, make it personal and see what they want to get out of it (thank you, Caroline Wong, for that great advice).
- Align yourself with people who support and trust your choices, I can’t stress this enough!! This is half of the battle.
- There’s only really 1 person that will be judging you and that’s you, so be the best version of yourself.