Podcamp Boston, lack of women speakers, and bringing things to neutral

Yesterday I attended PodCamp Boston. Its an interesting conference, lots of planned presentations about social media. I attended one about measurement where the speaker didn’t show up, so someone just jumped up and led the discussion. That was a very interesting discussion too, 3 minutes into no one remembered the speaker didn’t show. I also listened to a discussion about community in the Enterprise, and came away with a couple of pages of notes.

The conference organizers emphasized that some of the best discussions are not in the presentations. I found this to be true as well. I talked a couple of times with John Elder Robison about the fascinating work he is doing at Harvard’s Beth Isreal hospital on how TMS can unravel how autistic brains work. I talked to someone who is getting their Instructional Design degree from UMass.

One conversation changed the whole day for me. I was actually thinking about leaving early, I had seen and talked to John, I was tired of re-hashing the same information about social media, and I think I was just feeling burnt out from the final week of class. Then I started talking to a couple of other ladies about why there were only 5 women speakers. Yes, this conversation was a continuation of the theme that continues to bubble up. However, there was a twist. From what I can tell, it was pretty easy to get on the program at Podcamp Boston. All you had to do was let them know what sort of discussion you wanted to lead. I didn’t sign up to do that because I knew Podcamp was after the last day of finals, and I didn’t want to deal with the stress of preparing and presenting and all that. I just wanted to enjoy.

More importantly, at Podcamp they designate open spaces as a place where you can start a spontaneous discussion. There is a white board, you sign up with your topic, space you want to use, and time. No women had signed up to do that. I had even thought about it, especially since I wasn’t really into any of what I was hearing. I thought about leading a discussion about how social media can be used to help people with Apserger’s (could kick myself now, that would have been really interesting), or about education and podcasting. But I didn’t.

And that is what we discussed at the table. We know that it appears as if conference organizers don’t go out of their comfort zone and known circles to find female speakers, but what about this conference? This conference had a very low bar to jump over to present, why didn’t we step up? Are we holding ourselves back? Do we need to do something to meet conference organizers half-way?

Peering down at @skyle engaging #pcb4 on cougars and cocks on Twitpic

And with that, our gender discussion was born. We signed up on the whiteboard, someone gave it a mega-provocative name that I can’t repeat because it breaks the mama rule (don’t post something online if you would die if your mama saw it). We decided to have the discussion on the lawn, mostly because I wanted to be outside because it was such a gorgeous day.

Lots of things came out of this discussion. Women have various opinions on the state of equality, and I believe this is mostly because we come from different communities. We have our own ideas of what equality means, and what equality looks like. These ideas are most likely based on the experiences we have had in life, and the support we have used to process these experiences.

Men were out there too, and interestingly enough some of the reaction to our conversations were pretty much the same reaction the guys always have.  They don’t understand why we are complaining. We should just be “awesome”. They “don’t care what is in between our legs, just what is in between our ears” (yes, that is a direct quote).

This is what bothered me. It has always bothered me. Even if the guys are not as blatantly insensitive as the one I quoted, even if they really want to understand, there is something stopping them from “getting” it. Even my Brian. We have been talking about the male gaze all week, ever since Gail Simone tweeted me. I had to explain to people who Gail is: she is a comic book author. She writes Wonder Woman!! She had a list a few years back wondering why female heroes always ended up dead in a tragic, non-heroic way that mostly served to advance the plot of the male heroes. That list is called Women In Refrigerators.

So my comic book boyfriend decided to explain why the list was flawed. I would defend my view against his superior comic book knowledge (seriously, he can outgeek anyone. NO ONE has ever beat Brian when it comes to comic book knowledge). He would come back in a few hours with a logically thought out answer, to which I would respond with a sociologically based answer that invalidated his theory.

But he said something to me that was interesting – he comes to this discussion we are having from a neutral point of view. He doesn’t care which way is right, he’s neutral about it. I come to it with a female point of view – all of my experiences make me see the issue from a very emotionally charged vantage point.

I think this is the problem. The neutral view. This is why guys who really want to understand what women are saying when we tell them we are being marginalized don’t get it. They are so neutral that they can’t imagine any bad, any emotion.  They are neutral, so the problem is available to be solved in a logical Spok-like manner. The neutrality allows them to say emotionally charged things (just be awesome, I don’t care what is between your legs). Things that will shut off future discourse on the topic.

Maybe as women we need to strive to get to the neutral. That means accepting that not all women share our same experience. That means accepting that men really don’t understand, and accepting that they will say things to disrupt our quest to get to neutral.

Now the question is – how to we move to neutral? We need to get guys to understand they play a huge role in this. We need to think about the language being used, is it disruptive to neutrality? We need to fight the urge to stay in the emotionally charged states, and move to neutral. Any other ideas?

We are planning a podcast to continue this discussion, as soon as I have details I’ll post them.

Overall, the discussion was fantastic…best thing I did at Podcamp to be sure.

18 thoughts on “Podcamp Boston, lack of women speakers, and bringing things to neutral

  1. Gina,
    I don’t know if you really want to be “neutral” – you have strong beliefs and we like that about you. I think that there is a difference between being neutral and being moderate (i.e., not “partisan” – I wrote a post on being a “raging moderate” a few months ago – http://nohype.tumblr.com/post/103843111/saffo-wif09). It is very hard to get people to rally around “neutral”, rather you need to pull in the direction that gets you to the middle state that you’re shooting for. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wish I could of been there to attend and now even more thanks for your post, was happy to have found you through your tweets…I have spoken on this before too…look forward to reading more of what you have to say…thank you
    Beth

  3. Gina,

    Great post! Being one of those few women on the agenda, I wondered why there weren’t more myself.

    PodCamp is such an easy venue to sign up for because it’s truly opt in (all you have to do is add your name to the list) and showcase your knowledge. It would have been fantastic to have more women sharing their own social media experiences.

    I think in some ways, it’s still very easy for many women to stay in the sidelines and not step up and share their own insights. I wonder if this is because there’s a perception (right or wrong) that this is how it’s “supposed to be”? It’s such a shame and something that I hope we see changing.

    I don’t blame the organizers of PodCamp for the lack of women, though. After all, the key organizer @ChelPixie is a woman, and an amazing one at that! I think we need to find out comfort zone, figure out a bit better how not to care what others think so much, and put ourselves on the agenda. But that’s just me.

    Would have been very interested in your discussion on Asperger’s, as well – hopefully next year!

    Cheers,
    Jamie
    @JamiePappas

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  5. I take whole ownership of the requirement that regardless of gender, you need to be awesome to have your ideas catch fire, for you to achieve success or stand a chance of achieving success.

    I also wholly believe in it. I will never, ever, ever, ever play for the NBA. Ever. No matter how equitable the organization tries to be, no matter how strictly you enforce the rules preventing discrimination of any kind, I will never be there because I am supremely untalented at basketball. I am the direct antithesis of awesome at basketball, and that is a limitation I am unwilling to overcome, because my energy is better spent elsewhere.

    I encourage you to check out some other perspectives from other attendees of that session too.

    http://sbexperiment.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/not-so-processed-thoughts-from-the-girl-power-session-at-pcb4/

    Thanks for having the willingness to be a part of PodCamp!

  6. Chris, I am just going to hope we are missing each other’s meanings.

    And I’m a little taken aback that somehow raising the issue of real barriers is equated with not being awesome (or driving to be successful). One reason I am successful is I have always had an amazing support system and mentors who explained what was happening when I ran into these brick walls. Mentors who gave me words and strategies to get up and over these walls. I am interested in giving back and helping others now facing similar situations.

    I do think there are still real barriers for many people, and just telling them to “get over it” serves to shut down the conversation. I’m saying because right now that’s how I feel – I’m not sure this conversation is worth having if I only feel berated for expressing my world view.

  7. I think we may also be trying to climb the same mountain with different approaches. The idea of mentors and lifting others up is probably one of the most important things that anyone can do in this space, or any space. It’s vital to continued success – I have my mentors, my teachers, and the people who show me new and different things, and I pass along what I can to those people who have made a commitment to me as apprentices in their own right.

    Beth Dunn said it best in the comments on my blog post – no one is saying there aren’t structural, systemic, cultural inequalities out there. It’s ignorant to suggest otherwise. In the old rules, in the red ocean, the sharks are the only ones who rule, and that for the most part is Extremely Wealthy Old White Men. What is new, what is different is the blue ocean strategy, the disruption. That’s what new media provides – a break from the old order, for a time, a window of opportunity when it really IS about who’s got the best stuff, who can move the fastest to establish themselves as leaders.

    If we take our beliefs from the old rules into the new space, we pollute it and deprive ourselves of the opportunity to be that awesome. When you jump into a blue ocean, all you have is what you bring with you. No one understands new media better than we do, because we live it every day. Corporations by the boatload are just trying to figure this all out, trying to understand, trying to make money. Every minority, every underrepresented group right now has a shot at establishing themselves as leaders in the new space while it’s still new. You can, in effect, become the rulers of the new domain if you’re fast enough, clever enough, smart enough, wise enough.

    I’m saying that in the new space, which will only be new for a short time, you have opportunity. You have a chance to set up shop as a dominant leader in the space and become the authority. I say in my presentations all the time that this disruption gives you access to people that you have no access to at all in the old space, under the old rules, where there is a glass ceiling and a color screening and a religion check at the door. Use now, use the disruption to your advantage, to take leadership while you can.

    And that’s the essence of my argument. You might perceive it as shutting down conversation, and that’s partially true, not because the conversation isn’t important, but because every ounce of energy you spend on worrying about the old rules in a new space is energy you don’t have to spend on becoming the leader in the new space so that you can create the future you want, where the old rules don’t work any more because YOU set the new rules.

    Does that make sense?

  8. I think Chris nailed it in his comment above (well I would think that, wouldn’t I, since he very kindly and accurately paraphrased my earlier comment on his blog). The discomfort you feel is the same discomfort I feel when somebody tries to tell me that the only thing holding me back is me.

    Well, no, sorry, sport, but oppresive systems are real. Even deadlier because of how subtle they have become since everyone supposedly became all liberated and sensitive.

    But we’re talking about a new space that is peculiarly good at obscuring our differences (what a friend of mine calls “our prefixes”) and this presents a unique opportunity to let our Awesome speak louder than our prefixes. For once. For a while.

    As Chris points out, this is a limited time offer.

    Also, and I might take this point and expand on it on my blog, is that the “male neutral” you’re talking about isn’t “neutral.” it’s male normative. There’s a big difference, and an important one. Your boyfriend’s point of view isn’t neutral; it’s a point of view. A valid, honest, and real one, but a point of view nonetheless. There is no “neutral” versus “different.” that’s the exact false construct that got us here.

  9. I do not think I agree with these statements. Social media is social. People will bring the old with them, because it is social-based. If we ignore this, classes of people will continue to be marginalized when there is this one time opportunity to level the playing field.

    I have a background in library science. This is traditionally what librarians do – provide access to information based on a person’s filter. What happens when we are in this new world, where there are no librarians? What happens when there is dissent carried over from before (because of the social) that gets shut down or marginalized? This is what I worry about.

    And Beth, you should meet my daughter. She said the same thing about male neutral. (She has an anthropology background).

  10. People will indeed bring the old with them to a degree, if only out of habit, but it’s incumbent on all of us to shatter the old in ourselves as much as possible.

    It’s not about leveling the playing field. It’s about an entirely NEW field that’s empty, that’s yours if you want it. As the field fills up, folks arriving will look to who’s already there for how to play on the new field. You’re on the field now. You’re an early adopter. I’m saying that you can MAKE the new rules, and the folks who come in after you will see your rules as the norm.

    One final remark and I’ll leave this debate to better minds than mine – social media and new media is indeed a one time opportunity in this space, but there are a lot of disruptive spaces ahead that we haven’t even seen beyond the first glimpses of. Google Wave is the vanguard of change to social. Beyond that is the semantic Web, beyond that is augmented reality, beyond that is true virtual reality in every sense, and beyond that, who knows.

    With this much disruption ahead, there will be opportunities aplenty, but it’ll be easier to leverage the new opportunities if you have a leadership position in the opportunity that is now.

    I wish you all success in being the leading social librarian :-)

  11. Fascinating discussion. I was at Podcamp but did not attend the session on the lawn. If I had, I would have been one of the ones agreeing with the “just be awesome” approach.

    I did sign up to lead a discussion at Podcamp, and my session was not chosen. However, I never, ever, thought about being denied because I was a *woman*. I just assumed that my topic was not “sexy” enough to make it onto the printed schedule (it was about blogging specifically, so maybe it was too specific. Whatever). And I never took count of how many presenters were women versus men. Some may say that I’m likely naive and oblivious. Perhaps, but I also knew that at Podcamp, if I really wanted to hold my session, I could. I just needed to sign up for one of the open spaces. There was nothing holding me back. If I was passionate enough about the topic and could “sell” it to other attendees, I could have a session on any topic at all.

  12. I was part of that lawn conversation at Podcamp and have to say, that I took no offense at all to Chris’ comment regarding what’s in our heads vs. our pants. I don’t want to be neutral, as a woman I have assets and advantages that I use daily in my personal and professional life. None of it is physical, by the way, unless you count my brain – and as an extension my personality and experience.

    I have spoken at numerous Podcamps over the years (and dozens and dozens of professional conferences) and to be quite honest, drove 5 hours each way and just didn’t feel like getting in front of everyone this time around. My busy schedule had nothing to do with my selfishness. My most productive encounters happen in the hallway, and this Podcamp was *all about me* to me. Take what you need, and I did just that this past weekend. I gave back in my own way, just not in front of a session.

    I’ve been commenting around the space on this topic, and wanted to say I’m thrilled that people have such passionate views on the subject. I’m also glad that we all (seem) to still respect each other despite our opposing views. I respect anyone who speaks their minds openly, honestly, and without hostility – and that includes remarks and comments to those whom we don’t agree with.

  13. Hi Beth,

    Being one who believes for myself that I am the only one who can limit me and my potential (and just said so in a recent blog post), I wanted to share my perspective on what I mean by that for myself. As a point of clarification, I don’t tell other people that this is true for them, as I do not know their situations. But I do believe they have the potential to try to step back and see things through a different lens by not holding on to the past, but embracing reality and striving for change in a positive way using the resources and people we have around us, and probably even some we don’t even know are out there yet.

    What I mean when I say that “the only one who can limit me is me” is that I alone have the power to choose to be satisfied with how things currently operate (and I fully agree there are oppresive systems that still exist) and allow that to become my excuse for not striving to reach my goals. In this example, I am limiting myself by not trying to reach my goals, rather just “settling” for “how it is.”

    By the same token, I alone have the power to decide that I will not settle for anything less than what I want, and that I will strive to overcome whatever my obstacles are in an ongoing effort to reach my goals. Realistically, of course my choices have to fit into the constructs of our society and laws, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying to figure out ways to get where I need to be, or let the frustrating of the uphill battle in front of me stop me from trying to get up that hill.

    This is, after all, how change happens. People like all of us in this discussion see problems with how things are today, and we strive to make them better, not only for ourselves, but for those that will come after us. In the course of doing so, we win some, and we lose some, as they say, but we also learn a lot along the way.

    As both you and Chris point out – this is a limited time offer where we have a huge window of opportunity to go beyond and position ourselves as thought leaders in this space because no one has it all figured out yet. So it’s the perfect opportunity to level the playing field, so to speak, and make it what we want it to be for the future, not focus on the past.

    Best,
    Jamie
    http://jamiepappas.typepad.com/

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  17. As always, I enjoy the perspectives shared by Gina and the goals each respondent wants to attain either for themselves or a larger collective. Questioning and seeking to understand remains a valuable life skill. I will have to say when I deal with the much larger world for most people I know, work with, or I am related to; gender issues, let alone social media never shows up as a blip on their radar screens. It reminds me of when I was in college student government and would get passionate about an issue that very few other people seemed to know about or care. Each person decides what problems and boundaries they will focus on, and if you find resonance with someone to try to make a difference, you are lucky. Female human beings continually want to expand their life role due to the fact our brains have the same needs as males. I sometimes wonder if life would have been easier if we were as incapable as we used to be thought, and in many countries still considered. Most males just do not have to face that issue. I cannot expect them to be able to understand, although they can be sympathetic. You have to be a somewhat strong minded and confident female to get past cultural conditioning and expecatations as well as the biology, to achieve a different or expanded role in life. Some people have enough gumption to do it for themselves, but many others require help or are not even interested in changing their role. Social media provides one possible support tool to help people build connections to change some cultural norms, but there are many norms to overcome. Perhaps the timeframe for change should be understood to be several generations even with technology

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